Although ostensibly taking place in Ireland roughly a decade after the events of Brooklyn, and featuring a whole host of different characters, Nora Webster is a book that is very much cut from the same cloth. Brooklyn‘s central character Eilis is even mentioned in an aside at one point early on in the book, the counterpoint offered as a possible life choice that isn’t open to our titular heroine this time around, whose life is evenly mapped by both grief and responsibility. Grief because at the opening of the novel, Nora has just lost her husband Maurice to a sudden and surprising illness; responsibility because, in keeping with a great many Irish families at the time, they weren’t backward at coming forward when it came to children, and Nora and Maurice managed four children, two girls and two boys, before he shuffled off this mortal coil. So Nora Webster then is, in some senses, the story of a widow. Unlike Mick Jackson’s not dissimilar book, The Widow’s Tale, however, Nora doesn’t walk away from her lot – for all of her peregrinations, to their former holiday home in Cush (which she sells in order to raise some short term cash), for example, home is what roots her.
Her two daughters are away, at school and college, learning to become the women they will be, and her two boys, Conor and Donal, are home, struggling in their own way with the new world, occasionally squabbling amongst themselves, occasionally looking at their mother in a way she cannot fathom; conversations with relatives offering glimpses and glances of what the problem might be (during her husband’s illness, it appears she neglected everything else – it’s not hard to sympathise with her position). Not that she is sympathetic all of the time. She can be spikey and moody and she can snap and her sisters are afraid of her at times (using her daughters to transmit information regarding their own lives across a divide). Toibin’s gentle way with a tale, though (which has traces of William Trevor and also traces of the Joyce who brought us Dubliners), opens up Nora’s entire world to us – the golf club (also familiar from Brooklyn), the local shops (Nora has her hair cut relatively early on in proceedings and it causes a stir on the streets as she walks home), the school (which she threatens to picket when one of her sons is moved from one class to another without her say-so) and, of course, Gibney’s, the local factory where she worked many years previous as a sort of bookkeeper, a place she never expected to have to go back to (but, of course, as she admits, so much of her life at the point we read and from that point on utterly different from any life she had imagined for herself) and a place she has to learn to return to – her former enmity with an old colleague Francie Kavanagh ignited afresh.
It is through music, however, that Nora is brought back to life, both listening to gramophone records in the company of others at a local social club but also singing herself, first almost by accident on a night standing in for someone as the ready reckoner on a travelling pub quiz and then later with an elderly teacher who was the scourge of her children some years previous. It is here, as she sings, surprised by the depth and gravity of her voice, and listening to records (the cover of a record featuring a young girl seems to resonate with her, offering her a glimpse – just as Eilis does in her own way, of a life that she will not live, a life that was never open to her) that she learns to be free of her grief, gradually, and comes to spy a road ahead for her (although it should be said, Toibin is not a crass writer and Nora Webster is not a self help book for grief or indeed a sort of sad middle aged retake of The Commitments) – there’s a measured gravity to proceedings. Nora will not be turning around and becoming that Lady Gaga, sure she won’t, but it’s possible that life has something for her which is something she didn’t suspect. Toibin is also tremendously good on the parental death by a thousand paper cuts, Nora watching her children, particularly her younger boys, as they make their way in the world, suffering their own hurts, quietly and with a new dignity, learned we suspect as a result of the loss of their father. There’s an episodic way about the book (here she goes buying record albums in Dublin, here she goes trying to paint the ceiling of her living room) and your willingness to be swept up by the gentility of the book may determine how much you enjoy it. For this reader, whilst it didn’t quite sweep me off my feet in the way that Brooklyn did, it was still pretty damn good for all that and comes recommended by us, sure it does.
Any Cop?: We are a leetle bit surprised it didn’t earn more kudos, released as it was in the midst of the literary awards season, it’s a substantial read and cements an idea we had in our minds that Toibin is quietly becoming a sort of Irish version of Ian McEwan (which we know a lot of you would find truly terrible) – but which we mean in a good way: a serious, popular novelist, looking to create a serious, popular body of work.