If you have read some Colm Tóibín books, you have most likely run into mid-20th century life in Enniscorthy, County Wexford, Ireland. In these books, it is made to look a really small place where everybody knows everyone else’s business and feels compelled to comment, meddle and even interfere with private affairs. It follows that social conformity is often expected and that making one’s own choices may meet with considerable opposition. Even dying your hair may be the subject of social scrutiny and unwanted comments.
It is in this social context that Nora Webster loses the love of her life, her husband Maurice, who dies prematurely of heart disease. A mother of four, whose two eldest daughters are studying in Dublin, she is left to deal with her grief and that of her two teenage sons, under the kind and watchful (yet meddlesome) eyes of relatives and neighbors.
She handles family affairs, selling the beach house and making some changes to the family home, returns to work at a local business where she had been employed in her youth, searches for solutions to her sons’ educational issues, while managing limited financial resources. Fortunately, her widow’s pension from her husband’s teaching job gets adjusted which leaves her in a fairly comfortable situation.
As Maurice had truly been the center of her world, she has trouble developing her own social life and relying on her own tastes rather than following his. She had most likely been a kind and faithful companion to her husband but most likely not an outspoken one. We often find her reflecting on what Maurice would have done in specific social situations and asking herself what she could now do since she was on her own and no longer following his guidance. It is an interesting contrast to her relatives stating that that she was a “demon” until she met Maurice…
As we follow Nora’s experience of her grief and her attempts to regain a sense of who she is an individual, we also see the changing nature of her relationships with her four children, as they slowly become more independent and find their own ways of honoring their father’s memory.
Over the three year period covered by the novel, Nora goes through a number of ups and downs. At some point over three years after Maurice’s death, her aunt realizes that Nora has never emptied the closets and had kept Maurice’s belonging. She sets out to do the long overdue clean up. As they gather up his belongings to give them away, they find a small wooden box and they bring it to Nora.
Nora shuddered. She knew what it was.
After some trouble, they get the box opened.
All of Maurice’s letter to her in the years before they married were there. She had kept them in the box, locked away. She remembered how shy his tone was when he wrote to her. The letters were often short, just suggesting a place in the town where they might meet, and a time.
She did not have to look at them; she knew them. He often talked about himself as though he were someone else, saying that he had met a man who had told him how fond he was of a certain girl, or how he had a friend who walked home from seeing his girlfriend and all he thought was how much he would like to see her again soon, or how he would like to go to Ballyconnigar with her and walk along the cliffs at Cush and maybe have a swim with her if the weather was good.
She knelt down and slowly fed the letters into the fire. She thought about how much had happened since they were written and how much they belonged to a time that was over now and would not come back. It was the way things were; it was the way things had worked out.
The burning of the letters seems to mark an important turn in Nora’s journey.
This passage reflects the quiet, intimate tone in which Nora’s thoughts are shared with the reader throughout this novel and it is so characteristic of Tóibín’s writing. His characters often sound unsure about how they feel, tentative about their planned course of action, somewhat fatalistic about the cards that life has dealt them. Emotions are described at length, in nuanced ways, but often in muted tones, as if great joy or violent pain was unknown to them. Nora Webster often sounds detached, as if numbed by grief. One wonders if she will recover her “demon” side as the grief lessens.
Tóibín, Colm. Nora Webster, McClelland & Steward, 2014.