Colm Tóibín’s most recent book was about a grieving woman, too. But she was the mother of Jesus Christ, so the stakes seemed somewhat higher. In his new novel, “Nora Webster,” the Irish master has posed an entirely different challenge for himself: Rather than imagining the angry rant of the Virgin who changed human history, he describes a mother who never accomplishes anything unusual, never claims any position in the affairs of the world at all.
It’s far more believable and, ultimately, more miraculous.
Like some of his earlier novels, “Nora Webster” takes place in Wexford, Ireland, where Tóibín was raised. He started the book more than a decade ago but set it aside, intimidated, he says, that it was “so personal.” Over the years, he added scene after scene, recalling the life of his widowed mother in the late 1960s and early ’70s. The result is a strikingly restrained novel about a woman awakening from grief and discovering her own space, her own will. There’s no reason — except for Tóibín’s extraordinary skill — that this should be any more interesting than watching clover wilt. It arrives as though in response to Alice McDermott’s call at this summer’s National Book Festival for more literary novels about ordinary women, women who are not avenging angels or bludgeoned victims but fully realized characters who become “someone” through the force of a great writer’s insight.
So readers in search of flaming buildings and libidos should turn the page now. In this incorrigibly subtle novel, Tóibín is writing for “people on whom nothing is lost.” The story eventually includes references to the Troubles, but those frightening confrontations are mostly far away, spotted on television, considered in worried conversations over tea. Instead, the action of “Nora Webster” is composed of tender moments of quiet triumph and despair: the drama of a thoughtful family emerging from bereavement.
In the opening pages, Nora is growing impatient with the bossy sympathy and “hectoring tone” of her well-meaning neighbors. “You must be fed up of them,” one drones on cluelessly as Nora tries to get away. “I don’t know how you put up with it.” For this 44-year-old widow, so determined to maintain her dignity and privacy, it’s a struggle to grieve in a village where people remember your birth and know the plot in the graveyard where you’ll eventually be buried. She feels cramped by everyone’s pity: “It was solid, as the outer wall of a vault is solid,” she realizes, “built to withstand rather than support.” The recent death of her husband — a beloved schoolteacher — has transformed her and her family into a simulacrum of their old selves. “They had come to behave,” Tóibín writes, “as if everything were normal, as if nothing were really missing. They had learned to disguise how they felt. She, in turn, had learned to recognize danger signs, thoughts that would lead to other thoughts. She measured her success with the boys by how much she could control her feelings.”
But, of course, that control is elusive; many things are missing now, including her husband’s income, and no one in the family knows exactly what to do. Nora is still traumatized by her husband’s agonizing illness and death, shockingly mismanaged by the local doctor. “When she asked herself what she was interested in, she had to conclude that she was interested in nothing at all. . . . She wondered if she would ever again be able to have a normal conversation and what topics she might be able to discuss with ease and interest.” Her younger son has begun wetting the bed. Her older one — based on the author’s 12-year-old self — has grown withdrawn and developed a stammer.
Tóibín knows the claustrophobic dimensions of this world, but he also appreciates the vanished courtesies and intimacies it offered residents. That culture existed — and exists again in these chapters — far removed from our therapeutic age. “It will be all right,” an old nun tells Nora. “It is a small town, and it will guard you.” Nora doesn’t load up on advice books or whisk her sons to urologists and speech therapists. They rely, instead, upon their own kindness and determination. Given a little peace and space, Nora knows “she would work out how she was going to live.”
And so she does, slowly and without tears, across pages that never succumb to a single melodramatic or sentimental phrase. Much of the plot involves Nora going back, after 21 years away, to her first employers, a ridiculously imperious couple who pretend they rule the village. “Returning to work in that office belonged to a memory of being caged,” Tóibín writes, but Nora is not one for self-pity or shame. When a rude co-worker must be put in her place, she does it. Other challenges follow, some of them gently comic. Determined to reenter the world, she gets her hair dyed for the first time: “When it was finished, she knew that anyone who saw her on the way home would think that she had lost her mind.” No matter. Again and again, Nora finds herself more capable and resilient than she ever realized. When her son’s headmaster makes an unfair decision, she rises up like an Irish mother bear and threatens to hurl down “a widow’s curse.”
An autobiographical novel about one’s emotionally rigid mother sounds like an opportunity for psychic revenge. But there’s nothing like that in this story, which portrays Nora with tremendous sympathy and understanding. Here is a woman doing the best she can, learning to care for her children even as she begins to think of herself as possessing her own interests, giving herself permission to pursue artistic pleasures for their own sake. Tóibín would probably cringe at the idea, but there’s something implicitly didactic about this novel: Its barely undulating plot and exactingly modulated tone serve as a kind of guide to living without excess drama. Nora never breaks down; her children never lash out; none of them spray their grief on Twitter (they don’t even have a phone in the house). It’s a poignant reminder of a time when people responded to hardship with dignity instead of indignation.
One evening, Nora lets the boys stay up late with her to watch Ingrid Bergman in “Gaslight.”
“What’s the film?” the younger one asks.
“It’s about a woman in a house,” she tells them.
“Is that all?”
Yes. But in the right hands, that’s enough.
Charles is the editor of Book World. His reviews appear in Style every Wednesday. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles. On Oct. 15 at 7 p.m., Tóibín will be at Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington. Call 202-364-1919 for information.
By Colm Tóibín
Scribner. 373 pp. $27