Sunday, November 16, 2014

"Nora Webster," by Colm Toibin

Very occasionally I almost resist writing here about a book I have just finished, because I am afraid there is no way I can do it justice. I ask myself if I can simply write “This book is wonderful, amazing, beautifully written…You MUST read it!” So I do say that now about “Nora Webster” (Scribner, 2014), by Colm Toibin. (My 11/9/14 post was about hearing him speak at a local bookstore.) When I finished and closed the book, I felt both moved and fortunate to have read it, and sad to have the experience come to an end. This is a novel powerful in its particularities of the everyday, and profound in its revelations of the mysteries and tides of life, death, and change. The way Toibin portrays Nora Webster is a marvel, a masterpiece, but always with restraint. She is a woman in a small town in Ireland in the late 1960s whose beloved husband Maurice has recently died; the novel covers the three years after his death. She has four children, each also portrayed with precision and perception, as are her sisters, aunts and uncles, co-workers, and friends. In addition to etching these individual portraits, the novel portrays a community, one that can be smothering and yet can be, and is, a dependable and loving source of strength and support. Although Nora is a strong woman, and more independent than is necessarily common during that time period, she is part of a traditional society and lives in a small town where everyone knows what everyone else is doing. During the course of the three years, she gradually learns how to live without her husband, and to find out what makes her happy. There are no radical changes, just what may seem to readers very small steps, but her process of growing into herself is tangible and exquisitely delineated. She gradually understands that she must – and can – make her own decisions. It is both a burden and a freedom. She does have the help of her extended family and her community, but finally she needs and wants to be in charge of her own life. She starts to work again. She fiercely defends her children when it is necessary but lets go and lets them become more independent when that is necessary. She starts to take singing lessons, reclaiming her beautiful voice that she seldom used after her marriage. She starts listening to and learning about classical music, buys a gramophone and more and more records, and derives great pleasure from them. She renovates her house and decorates it to her own taste. She buys new clothes. She comes to terms with some people in her life with whom there has been dissension. The impression is always of a woman who does things thoughtfully and at her own pace, but with passion and decisiveness when necessary. She has her times of weakness and sadness and pain, but overall she is able to handle those moments too. And she becomes happy in her new life. By the end of the novel, she is able to give away her husband’s clothes, symbolic of her moving on. She will always love him, but she has learned to continue with and enjoy her life. As I reread this summary, it sounds much more schematic than the progress of the novel actually feels, and I hope I do not do the book a disservice with this perhaps too-neat portrayal. Toibin is a writer of great subtlety, and no mere summary can convey the feeling of this beautiful and perceptive novel. Highly recommended.
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