If I was not a fan of Colm Tóibín’s writing I might not have finished his most recent novel, “Nora Webster”. Unlike Jumpa Lahiri’s “Lowland” which I had just finished reading, it is not plot driven. It is a character study of an Irish widow in the early 1960s in a small town in the southeast of Ireland near Wexford. The novel moves at a small town pace capturing the fears of a sheltered widow thrust into economic and sole parenting decisions to support two young boys and teenage girls in a changing world. It is Irish in tribalism, petty grievances and grudges, Catholic upbring, family, and community. It captures the disruptiveness of Northern Ireland and the IRA on Catholic Ireland at a personal level. It is a novel that if you have or had a strong bond with your spouse you will relish.
The change in my perception of the novel began with Chapter Eight, about half-way through the book. Religion is more than a faith when practiced well. It offers both comfort and guidance in various dosages from those who know their flock very well. Like politics, religion is local. It is a wonder anyone would give confession in Nora Webster’s town as Sister Thomas is as good as a bookie at a turf parlor. As Ms. Webster appreciatively notes “that in any other century, Sister Thomas would have been burned as a witch.”
The book makes a passing reference to the theologian Thomas Merton, who I know the author takes an interest in. He had spoken on a panel about Mr. Merton last year in New York City. What I found most revealing about the panel discussion was his Irish ability to tell stories that are both funny and sometimes deprecating. As a social people the Irish offer plenty of characters and caricatures. It is no wonder that gifted writer such as the author finds a treasure trove to write about.
There is however, universality to this book: marriage; widowhood; community; parenting; sibling rivalry; women’s rights; and economic and culture class. Those who speak with a Dublin dialect are to be mocked. Classical music and opera are pretensions. Politics is argued about openly by men, not by women. Ms. Webster is not the meek person that she appears to be outside of her family and with the help of supportive family and community she becomes an individual.
From one character, and that character’s thoughts and relationships, a whole canvas of the times is painted by the author. It is a great gift to be able to write with but shadow and light, but Mr. Tóibín is highly gifted.
I would definitely recommend this book; particularly for older readers who have lived through and will continue to live through the joys and tribulations of daily life.