Friday, November 21, 2014

What We're Reading: New Fiction


Nora Webster, by Colm Tóibín

This novel is a nuanced and moving meditation on the nature of loss and grief, a story about how one woman moves in fits and starts through a traumatic sorrow and claims a new life. The novel is set at the end of the 1960s during the time of the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland, events that Nora feels at times to be analogues of her internal conflicts. Nora Webster has recently lost her husband Maurice to a premature death due to heart failure. She is in her mid-forties and is left with two daughters away at college and two younger sons still living at home. She has barely enough money to cover their living expenses, and is assisted by Maurice’s brother and sister, who help provide support for her children’s schooling. She returns to work at an unpleasant office job she held before she married. She must make necessary and practical decisions about her own life, deal with the troubling consequences of the loss of their father on the lives of her children (especially the two young boys), and learn to navigate a network of business, public, and familial relationships on her own.

Readers who are used to plot-driven novels may not appreciate what Tóibín has accomplished in this novel. This is a character-driven novel, which is to say that plot serves to delineate a psychological and interior portrait of the protagonist. It is crafted to create a sense of presence, to make us as intimate with a fictional character as we might be with someone we might know or meet in real life. This is a hallmark of Tóibín’s work. Here, as in his complex portrait of a young Irish immigrant woman in his novel Brooklyn, he writes in the Jamesean tradition. The reader must pay attention to the nuances of the dialogue, how these conversations impact Nora, and how her words reveal her feelings and the hidden movements of her thoughts. The “action” in Nora Webster takes place internally. But one of the great achievements of Tóibín’s writing is that in the process of drawing a portrait of an individual he also gives us a sense of a particular community and shows us how in a time of trouble we are pushed and pulled by the people in our immediate world---if we are lucky---and Nora is lucky.

We are apt, at first, to feel that Nora’s relatives, co-workers, and friends are intrusive elements in her grief. They all seem to know just what is best for her, what she must do to reconcile herself to her loss, and the course she must take to move through it to reclaim her life--even how long it should take. Nora sometimes accedes, sometimes resists. This is the quiet drama that goes on in this novel, Nora sorting through the advice of others while trying to listen to the voice of her own instincts and feelings and find a way to move on. We meet some extraordinary characters in the surrounding cast of Nora’s life here, prodding angels who enter the enclosed and entropic world of Nora’s grief. They provide the essential impetus to her slow-moving and evolving triumph, to her reemergence in the world. We come to realize they are not intruders and busybodies but that they push Nora motivated by their love and concern for her. Tóibín gracefully traces this dynamic and gives us a hopeful and moving novel about the nature of grief and its healing.


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