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Review: Nora Webster, by Colm Toíbín
Scribner, 2014. 373 pp. $27
When I first started reading Nora Webster, I wondered whether it deserved to be called a historical novel. Now that I’ve finished it, I think that in its masterful subtlety and understatement, the book ranks among the best historical fiction I’ve read in a while.

The flap copy actually undersells Nora Webster, odd as that sounds. Scribner would have us believe it’s a story about a newly widowed Irishwoman in her forties, trying to cope with loss, loneliness, and her struggles to raise four children on her meager savings. But it’s also how Nora, paralleling the feminist movement of the late 1960s–which seeps into the narrative around the edges–literally and figuratively finds her own voice.

Tower in Wexford, Ireland, 2008. (Courtesy Ian Murphy; public domain in the U.S.)

Tower in Wexford, Ireland, 2008. (Courtesy Ian Murphy; public domain in the U.S.)

At the start, Nora’s preoccupied with fending off well-wishers who continue to press her with platitudes about Maurice, her late husband, who died a few months before. In this small town in County Wexford, not only does everyone know everyone else’s business, they consider it their right to judge it, from clothes to hairstyles to whatever they assume is right and proper. Nora suffers intensely from scrutiny, real or imagined, and–in the beginning–curbs herself to try to avoid it, partly by putting up with the intrusion.

As with everything about her, you see many sides, not all of them sympathetic–her desperate need to grieve by herself; her passivity at allowing anyone to interrupt; her anger at herself for it; her self-absorption, which costs her children, especially her two young sons; and the patronizing way her relatives try to fix her life. They even have good ideas, and the money to implement them, which forces Nora to choose between accepting needed help or insisting on her independent authority.

However, there’s much more. She notices, for the first time, how her sisters pay close attention to whatever a man says, never fussing or trying to do two tasks at once while he speaks, as they would if it were only Nora. To these women, she’s not really there, she realizes. Further, when the conversation turns to politics, one sister asks the men what they think, but nobody ever asks her, though she has strong opinions. Maurice never asked her either, apparently, which makes Nora wonder whether she’ll be speaking up more, now that he’s gone.

Oh, yes, she will. Nora can be oppositional and intimidating, so much so that she’s scared her children, who talk more openly with their aunts and uncles. Gradually, however, she turns her strength toward what she wants and believes in, despite what others may say or think. Much is happening in Ireland–killings between Catholic and Protestant, protesters beaten or killed, demands for better working and living conditions, voices raised for feminism. And Nora’s television is always on, bringing news of change into her household. So when she returns to the job she once held before her marriage, she’s no longer the pushover she once was, and even joins a union. Toíbín is too good a novelist to make this transition simple–Nora scuffles with herself, endlessly–but she sheds her reticence and expands her life.

Most significantly, Nora has always had a fine singing voice but never trained or used it. Now she does, taking lessons from a woman whom everyone else finds too eccentric; in fact, all Nora’s new friends have that reputation. It’s the perfect metaphor to describe Nora’s life as a widow: For once, she has found her own voice, and damn the gossips.

Colm Toíbín has written a lovely, moving novel about a woman suffering through heartbreak, but also a novel about the 1960s that feels lived in (and much more satisfying than Cementville, which I reviewed earlier this week). What a story.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.