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Set in Wexford, Ireland, Colm Toibin s superb seventh novel introduces the formidable, memorable and deeply moving Nora Webster. Widowed at forty, with four children and not enough money, Nora has lost the love of her life, Maurice, the man who rescued her from the stifling world to which she was born. And now she fears she may be drawn back into it. Wounded, strong-willed, clinging to secrecy in a tiny community where everyone knows your business, Nora is drowning in her own sorrow and blind to the suffering of her young sons, who have lost their father. Yet she has moments of stunning empathy and kindness, and when she begins to sing again, after decades, she finds solace, engagement, a haven herself.
"Nora Webster" is a masterpiece in character study by a writer at the zenith of his career, beautiful and daring ("The New York Times Book Review") and able to sneak up on readers and capture their imaginations ("USA TODAY"). In Nora Webster, Toibin has created a character as iconic, engaging and memorable as Madame Bovary or Hedda Gabler."
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2014-07-07
- Reviewer: Staff
Tóibín’s 10th novel offers a compelling portrait of an Irish woman for whom fate has prescribed loneliness. Widowed at 40, with four children and shaky finances, Nora rejects condolences and pity. She is so intent on making her children’s lives normal that she ignores their need to mourn as well. In the wake of her husband’s terminal illness, she instills fear and bewilderment in her two younger boys; they have nightmares, and one begins to stutter. The two girls, away at school, are resentful as well. Nora is sometimes obtuse about the choices she makes. She is short-tempered and sharp-tongued, and she makes significant mistakes—but her frailties make her an appealing character. Catholicism is woven into the setting of 1970s Enniscorthy. The Church is represented by a mean, small-minded teacher in the Christian Brothers monastery school and by a saintly nun who acts as guardian angel for the family. Several years pass, in which Nora gradually finds an unexpected fulfillment in a talent she had never acknowledged. Tóibín (Brooklyn) never employs dramatic fireworks to add an artificial boost to the narrative. No new suitor magically appears to fall in love with Nora. Instead, she remains a brave woman learning how to find a meaningful life as she goes on alone. (Oct.)
Navigating a changing Ireland
Colm Tóibín’s new novel, Nora Webster, never strays from the quiet, deceptive simplicity of its storytelling, and yet this persuasive portrait of a compelling woman blossoms into something greater than the sum of its parts. Set in a small town in County Wexford, Ireland, in the early 1970s, it is the story of a mother navigating the first, tentative days and months of a premature widowhood.
Only in her early 40s, Nora has been left with four children—two daughters away at school and two younger sons still at home—after the untimely death of her beloved husband Maurice. She is a fiercely independent, intelligent and private woman, who pushes against the narrow margins of the nosy, hidebound town where she has lived most of her life. She must make some tough choices, both practical and emotional: whether to sell the family’s beloved cottage; whether to return to work at the suffocating office where she was employed before she married; how best to raise the children, particularly her visibly troubled son, Donal, who has grown asocial and developed a stammer since his father’s death. Suffering no fools gladly, Nora must nonetheless coexist with her parochial neighbors and interfering relatives as she attempts to figure out her next move in a time and culture where women had a prescribed “proper” place.
While she sometimes fails to acknowledge her own sorrow, Nora never wallows in self-pity, and while she may long for the love and protection she had with Maurice, her momentum is forward-facing, both due to her temperament and by necessity.
On the surface a domestic novel, Nora Webster also touches on the politics of Ireland during the Troubles, as well as the country’s firm, if complicated, relationship with Catholicism. With understated grace, Tóibín—who has been shortlisted three times for the Man Booker Prize—has turned a seemingly straightforward story of one woman’s widowhood into a wider exploration of family, community and country.