Margaret Ann Spence Coming Home
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Nora Webster

By Colm Toibin Scribner, 2014 When this book came out a year or so ago, a reviewer described it as a book about a quiet Irish widow, a book in which nothing much happens. So I didn’t pick it up immediately. But now I have. And in the hands of the extraordinary writer Colm Toibin, the everyday becomes illuminated, the preciousness and intimate richness of every single life, no matter how withdrawn or circumscribed it may seem, is made clear.  As for the claim that “nothing happens” in this novel, that is nonsense. For any young widow left with four children to support on very little money, life could be desperate. How Nora copes, calmly, quietly, is the core of this moving story. Nora Webster, we learn, is a mother of two girls in their late teens and two younger boys. Happily married to Maurice, a popular school teacher, she is shell-shocked at his agonizing death. It seems that both priest and doctor would not allow enough pain-killers for the dying man because it might damage his heart. This subtle dig at religious rigidity is all that Toibin allows himself in this novel. In fact, Nora’s greatest support comes from two religious women, a Sister Thomas, who seems like a busy-body, but offers non-judgmental love at every turn, and a former nun who becomes Nora’s singing teacher. Writers of fiction are often advised to create characters that readers will like. Toibin does nothing so obvious. He offers us Nora, who is prickly and defensive, who forbids herself the expression of much emotion, whose own mother preferred her sisters and sons-in-law to Nora, and who, on the surface, does not offer much comfort to her grieving children. The girls were away at school, but the younger boys were placed with Nora’s aunt while Nora tended to her dying husband. During this time the older boy, Donal, developed a stutter. Her aunt asks Nora why she never once checked on her kids the whole time their father was in hospital. Nora has no convincing answer except to say her time was fully occupied. Donal becomes the focus of Nora’s anxiety, though this is never stated out loud. She tries quiet activities to make the children feel life can continue normally, like taking them for an outing to Dublin, like renting a caravan for a summer vacation to make up for her having to sell the family beach cottage, like allowing her sister-in-law to build a dark-room so Donal can develop his photographs. Nora’s gradual opening up, like a flower, to allow others to help her is the story arc of this book. Her husband’s sister finds a boarding school for Donal, a Christian Brothers school with a photography club and Nora lets her sister-in-law pay for the tuition. Like most kids, the boy is lonely at first and Nora senses, when she visits him, that he wants to come home. Like Nora, he is guarded about his feelings and she won’t let him articulate them. Instead, she promises, simply, to visit him every weekend. Later, her second daughter, Aine, becomes involved in student politics, and is caught up in a demonstration on what became known as Bloody Sunday. She cannot be found. The family looks for her and in the end, Nora says she’s going home. (The girl is fine.)In these two instances, in which Nora demonstrates the opposite of helicopter parenting, we see that she is in fact a superb parent. She allows her children a chance to build their own resilience. The novel begins in the late 1960s and spans three years. These were momentous years in Ireland, the beginning of The Troubles, in which Northern Ireland became the focus of religious and political factionalism and the IRA became active. They were also momentous years for women. Feminism is never mentioned in this book. In fact, Nora, who is forced to return to work as a widow at the same firm she worked for before she married, regrets the loss of her freedom. While in the end she masters her bookkeeping job, we sense that she never enjoys it, hates the web of office politics, and wishes she could have her old life back. Nora says, “Never once, in the 21 years she had run this household, had she felt a moment of boredom or frustration.”  While one reviewer of this book found this to be self-deceptive, I found this comment by Nora to be very believable. There was, and still is, a sub-set of women who love the fulfillment of being able to create a full-time loving and secure home for their families. And this is why Colm Toibin is such a marvelous writer. He never allows himself to be seduced by current trends. Once again he has pulled off a masterpiece.

One comment on “Nora Webster

  1. Mary Taylor

    Margaret, you’ve made me curious about this book and this woman, this Nora. Now I’ll have to read the book! Will let you know how I get on!
    Mary

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