One of the blurbs on the back cover of Colm Tóibín's Nora Webster reads "If you loved Brooklyn then you'll love this . . . " I did love Brooklyn when I read it back in 2009. Surely so many years have not passed since I have read any more of his work? His writing is always worth the wait I've decided, but I won't let so much time pass before I pick up another of his books. I loved Nora Webster in a very different way than I loved Brooklyn, and I seem to recall that the two books are meant to be taken as something of a pair (will there be another one, then?). While there was something very youthful and fresh about Brooklyn, Nora Webster feels more melancholy and mature. It was shortlisted for the Costa Award and has garnered much well earned praise.
Nora Webster is a portrait of a woman who has, at forty-six, been widowed and now must look after her two elder daughters and two younger sons alone. She lives in a small town in Ireland where everyone is essentially in each other's pockets and everyone seems immediately apprised of the goings-on of their neighbors. As little as a new hairstyle or a change of hair color is enough to be noted and remarked upon--and not always in a complimentary manner. The period is the late 1960s, a revolutionary and culturally progressive era for so many, but still in Ireland society is decidedly conservative and straight-laced. To buck against the establishment is to invite criticism.
And now Nora Webster is finding her independence. Or trying to at least. And sometimes enjoying it, to the chagrin of others. But nothing comes easily for her. Her elder daughters are nearly grown and ready to make their own ways in the world and there is often friction between Nora and the two. And the two boys are still wheeling from the death of their father whom they were very close to. But so is Nora. Maurice was the love of her life and now he is gone. During his illness she was at his bedside almost continuously and the boys were in the care of an aunt. Both show the strain and one has begun to stutter with the implication being that Nora left them on their own too long.
How does a woman begin to remake her life, go on, care for her children both emotionally and financially when she had for so long been only a wife and mother. Now she must find a way to make ends meet and go out to work when it has been many years since was employed outside the home. And perhaps find some sort of happiness and contentment which is a challenge in the best of circumstances and even more so when you are a woman of "a certain age" who must start over again almost from scratch.
Nora is a prickly sort of woman though not without sympathy and certainly not without love and concern for her children. In some ways she almost seems cold and maybe a little selfish, but I could never condemn her. Rather I found much to admire in her character and could relate to a lot of what she thought and felt. Looking at her life through the prism of what Ireland was like at the time, she was prickly. But she is also forging a new independence and doing so unapologetically, though not without costs. Everything she does is scrutinized. The way she manages her children, how she manages her job, the social life she tries to undertake, and even something as small as the purchase of a new gramophone must be considered and reconsidered. How will it effect her children, how will she be judged for it and only lastly is it something she truly wants and that will give her some pleasure in life.
Colm Tóibín is pitch perfect in his characterization both of Nora and her children but also of the place and time capturing the feel and attitudes of rural Ireland. Nora is a woman who must learn to live her life in a new way and break free from the strictures of small town society. She doesn't always do it successfully, at least without attracting criticism, but she goes about it honestly. It was sometimes a little painful to watch her struggles, but it was encouraging to see her find her way. When she finally begins to live at least as much for herself as for her children, she decides to reinvent her life and I applaud every woman who does so.
"The idea of what she might do with the rooms downstairs kept her awake. She had to remind herself that she was free now, that there was no Maurice who would be cautious about costs, and grumpy about anything that would cause disruption to his routine. She was free. She could make any decision she liked about the house. She felt almost guilty as it occurred to her now that she could do whatever pleased her. It could all be done, anything she wanted, as long as she could afford it. If Jim and Margaret disapproved, or her sisters or daughters came with advice she would ignore all of them."