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Book Review - "Nora Webster" (2014) By Colm Toibin

By Selby C. Jacobs, MD, MPH

Loss and Identity

Nora Webster is the latest novel (2014) of Colm Toibin, one of Ireland’s leading contemporary authors of fiction.  The story is set in Enniscorthy, a small town, south of Dublin, in County Wexford on the southeast coast of Ireland.  The period is the late 1960s and early 1970s, before Ireland’s entry into the EEC and the economic “celtic tiger” of the ensuing years.  It is also a time when the “troubles” between Catholics and Protestants in N. Ireland were emerging and awareness of civil rights for women and disadvantaged people were shaping up as social issues in the Republic.  These serve as a socio-economic backdrop for the novel. 

Nora Webster, in her mid-40s, is a Catholic mother of four: two daughters, Fiona and Aine, who have left home for teacher training and university in Dublin, and two sons, Donal, in his early teens, and Conor, the youngest, latency aged, member of the family.

The novel opens one evening during the wake for Nora’s husband, Maurice, who was a teacher in a local school and has died from heart disease.  Though not described in detail, the reader surmises that his terminal illness was relatively brief and, at the end, painful and wasting.  The novel ends more than three years later with Nora emerging from her bereavement, having explored and found a new identity for herself predicated on he roles as an unmarried, widowed woman, mother, worker, and member of the community.

Loss and identity are central themes of the novel.  The story illustrates how loss shapes identity.  The reader gets to know Nora as an intelligent, dignified, strong willed, independent person, who rather abruptly has lost the love of her life.  Up to this point, her marriage had defined her as a person, having settled her down after a stormy adolescence and estrangement from her mother.  Nora’s attachment to Maurice was intense, deep and un-ambivalent.  His death challenges her identity in midlife.

Toibin’s writing style is unemotional, spare and unpretentious though often stirring.  The reader does not learn of Nora via inner dialogue or through description by an omniscient narrator.  The novel is not a story so much as a dramatization through a series of scenes in the life of Nora, whom we get to know through the settings and dialogue.  Interactions reveal her as others respond to her and as she copes with the serial challenges of widowhood, including a new social identity, tenuous financial circumstances, resuming work as a clerk in a local business, coping with a contemptuous boss, and facing the challenge of raising her children on her own.  Through her encounters, the reader learns of her evolution as a person, including her keen judgment of her children and childrearing. 

Setting and symbolism are essential tools for conveying an understanding of Nora’s character.  A visit to a summer vacation house on the shore in Cush is a painful reminder of her loss and reveals her desolation.  On the other hand, her home in Enniscorthy is her refuge and a platform for her new life. Along the hazy shore of the Irish Sea, she is “among the dead” as if in a transitional zone between life and death.  At the same time, the water represents the sea of life, in which the narrative reveals her as a strong swimmer.  Music and singing, in particular, as Nora discovers her voice, represents Nora’s “dream life”. 

The reader has glimpses of how difficult the loss is for her.  Two women, Sister Thomas, and Laurie O’Keefe, a former nun, perceive her darker side, suggesting ruminations about life and death.  Nora’s Aunt Josie, confronts her with the virtual abandonment of her two young boys during the two-month terminal illness of Maurice.  Nora’s distraction, during conversations with her family, indicates her preoccupation with Maurice and her loss.  To escape routine social intercourse, a walk in the rain drenches her and causes her sister to come searching for her.  A striking visual experience late in the novel, about three years after the loss, reveals her continuing, intense preoccupation with the loss of Maurice and her wish to be with him.  One consequence of these scenes is the reader’s impression that Nora suppresses and denies much of the emotional experience of grief (at least she does not reveal it, as she seemingly pursues a stoic acceptance), while remaining sensitive to the emotional needs of her boys.  Donal, in particular, is deeply troubled by the death of his father and has difficulty in school.  Intelligent and perceptive Conor remains obsessively concerned with events in his family, in fear of more change and trauma. 

Toibin has set previous novels in Enniscorthy, where he grew up.  The town is an essential part of the story.  The town provides the social structure, the social fabric and the social supports that help keep Nora afloat.  The reader learns of Enniscorthy’s fictional inhabitants, social strata and daily life.  The portrait of the town, while providing a particular setting for the drama, is that of a typical, small Irish town in this period of Ireland’s history.  Nora is born and raised here and is well known to the community.  Though Nora considers moving to Dublin for new opportunities and friends, she remains in her own place.

Slowly a new identity emerges, as Nora works, explores her talents, strives to raise her children, and immerses herself in music.  Identification with her deceased and formerly estranged mother is instrumental in this process.  Nora’s Aunt Josie, her mother’s sister, is also instrumental at different points in steering Nora forward.  But also, the need and opportunity to return to work and encouragement from new friends in town to explore the arts serve as mechanisms of growth.  Slowly, Nora finds her voice and her place, for the most part among other women, which may reflect the place and time in which the novel is set.

Many may identify with Nora and thereby learn about loss, grief, and identification.  Nora’s adaptation to a loss, the emergence of her new identity, and the accompanying social transitions, are presented in ample, explicit detail, consistent with the author’s fictional style.  But the novel does not serve as a detailed, systematic exposition of the complex emotional experience of grief.  Nora, while remaining attuned to her young boys, is rather repressed and seems to deny much of her own emotional experience, particularly at the outset of her bereavement.  There are glimpses of the shock, the insecurity, the trauma, the anger and protest, the yearning and separation anxiety, the searching for the deceased person, the deflation and despair, and the suicidal ruminations that she experiences.  Analyzing Nora as a character in these terms would be interesting and instructive, but it would take too much time and space for this review.  It is these emotional and behavioral manifestations of grief –their exaggeration, absence, or unusual timing-which therapists use to evaluate and assist people, who are adapting to a loss.   This masterful novel serves as a useful starting point for learning about these.

Contact Information

Center for Research on End-of-Life Care Weill Cornell Medical College 525 E 68th St, Box 39, 1414 Baker Pavilion New York, NY 10065 Phone: (212) 746-4409