REVIEW: Karin Schimke
Imagine a novel stripped of drama, of a dramatic arc and of any pretensions towards a rich poetic language, which follows the minutia of the life of a widow in the sixties – it doesn’t sound very enticing.
Possibly, without prior knowledge of Tóibín’s work, I might, in fact, have abandoned this book for the fact that it seems to plod onwards. But Tóibín is, almost unfailingly, a richly rewarding author to read and even if each of his novels is completely different to the previous one, it is usually a deeply satisfying experience.
Nora Webster lives in Enniscorthy, a small town in Ireland, in the 1960s. She is recently widowed and is the mother of four children, two older daughters, and two boys still at school.
Her husband, Maurice, was a teacher, much loved by his students and by the townsfolk and even by Nora’s family. Nora, on the other hand, though respected, evokes wariness rather than warmth. She is a prickly woman, and one senses that the people around her interpret her reserve as haughtiness. She seldom wavers, however, in her duties and diligences within the small close-knit, ever-curious and religiously and politically judgmental community in which she finds herself. And while she finds the constant scrutiny and visits from acquaintances after Maurice’s death tiresome and invasive, it is also because of this community that she finds a way to save herself and her family from ruin.
Nora must make difficult life and financial decisions on her own now, a job she seemed to share equally with Maurice before his death. She is soon employed, for the first time since her marriage, in the office where she worked before she married. While she is a fast and reliable worker, she is also strong-willed and rebellious, standing up to the office bully and also joining a union in what appears to her employers to be an act of disloyalty.
And so, very slowly, unfolds the story of a woman truly becoming herself in the wake of a terrible loss. Using an intimate third person narrator – who provides only Nora’s interior world and its perceptions – Tóibín tells this story without fanfare, tracking a familiarly ordinary life. In it, crises threaten, sometimes break, but are weathered – very much the way real life unfolds.
But this life, again just like our own lives, is played against the backdrop of political turmoil. The Troubles are just starting in Ireland and the country is shaken by demonstrations, gun-running politicians and general turmoil. Nora’s youngest daughter, a quiet, studious woman, becomes politically active, and Nora herself flexes her political muscles. I found Nora Webster an interesting study on how conventional women unstick themselves narrowly defined roles and slowly turn into more whole human beings as they challenge gender expectations in small but triumphant rebellions.
This is the Irish author’s tenth novel and the only thing that has become predictable for me about Tóibín is that each book is completely different to the previous one, but each is reliably good.