Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Review of Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín

This Booker Prize-nominated novel is a meditation on grief. The title character is a recent widow in late-1960s/early-1970s small town Ireland.  The reader spends time with her as she loses herself and then finds herself, retreats and then asserts herself, and isolates herself from her children and then reaches for them. This is a story of small, incremental changes in a shattered life.

There is very little plot -- tea gets poured, dinner gets served, a record player is purchased. But each tiny moment is another layer of grieving.

The mastery of this novel is the way that you come to care about a not-always-likable woman. You see her alienate others. You see her make bad decisions about her children. But she is somehow deeply endearing. You root for her.

The shattering of this small life is the big event, but it occurs under the umbrella of the shattering politics of Ireland during this time. It would help to read up a bit about the history of Ireland and, in particular, the Troubles of the late 20th century. I happen to have travelled to Ireland last summer, so I read this book with that background at hand. It turns out that I actually went to Enniscorthy – the little town in the book.

Here is a interesting article from the Guardian where the author discusses the autobiographical dimensions of the novel. In particular, he talks about how he couldn't put words to his own grief about the death of his father, so the main character became a fictionalized version of his mother. 

This is a terrific book if you are looking for a slow, meditative, character-driven story. 24 hours after finishing this book, I am still lost in Nora Webster’s world.


Gabrielle said...

Lets try this. I think I was picking "sign in on google" and not signing in.

Was this a Booker nominee this year? I liked your write up, it felt somber, the way you described the book. It made me think of Opal, that book we read, which I then googled and saw was not Opal, then I remembered it was Olive Kitteridge, and when I googled that, I saw the 5 hours old article on the Olive Kitteridge miniseries for HBO. Weird.

Do your think your recent visit to Ireland, and that town in particular, made it more real for you, making you feel more "lost" in that place as you said?


jennifer said...

First of all, getting a comment makes me so THRILLED. Thank you! And now I am very excited for the Olive Kitteridge miniseries --I had no idea there was one in the works.

I do think that the trip to the Ireland made me "see" the place more clearly, though the I thought the author's description of small town life was great on its own. My time in Ireland did give me a lot of background context about the politics at play in the story -- which wouldn't have been clear otherwise.

Lois Malone said...

I'm very eager to read this book Jennifer. As you know we traveled to Ireland this summer also and I found it to be very mystical.


jennifer said...

I think you'll like it! Erin and I are going to go see the author read/talk/whatever tonight.