Nora Webster by Colm Toibin
There are a few authors whose forthcoming books I look forward to reading with eager anticipation, knowing well before opening the cover that I will experience something truly exceptional as I read their words. Occasionally I am disappointed, but never with the work of Colm Toibin.
Colm Toibin is a masterful and sensitive writer. His most recent book of short stories, The Empty Family, was still on my bedside table, a book I dip into again and again, when his new novel Nora Webster arrived in the shop a few weeks ago.
Nora Webster seems a simple novel on the surface – it is the story of a woman’s life during the first few years after her husband’s death, as she cares for her grieving children and finds her own way in the world. Sounds simple - but what elevates it to something much more is the way in which Colm Toibin writes, the way he puts the words together on the page, as he slowly reveals what came before, along with what is happening in the present.
The novel opens with a knock on the door, yet another well-wisher offering sympathy and expecting a cup of tea from the grieving widow. Nora is the mother of two grown daughters well on their way to an independent life, no longer living at home most of the time, and two sons who are still dependent on her. They are both her support and her biggest worry. The older of the boys is most affected by his father’s death, and the changes that happen in the home, especially the sale of the family’s summer home. Nora must make decisions, however hard, as she takes on the daunting responsibility of supporting her children, financially and emotionally. She is at once both a strict and a lenient parent – giving her children freedom but never ignoring them. There is also an extended family closely involved with the children, Nora knowing that when needed they will be there for her and her family.
Nora, her family and her friends, are nice people dealing with the normal ups and downs of life. There are times when you fear for Nora, and one or more of her children, as we all do for our own. There are times when the fears are real and times when they are not, but are simply the natural worry of a parent for their child’s well being as they experience some of the difficult passages of growing up.
Colm Toibin was born and raised in southern Ireland in 1955, and has been recognized as a major literary talent since the publication of his first book in 1990. His novels have since won many awards, the most prestigious the 2004 Dublin IMPAC Prize for The Master. He currently lives in New York where he teaches at Columbia University.
A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending a reading at the International Festival of Authors in Toronto to listen to Colm Toibin read from Nora Webster.