Nora Webster

Colm Toibin

Nora Webster
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Nora Webster

Colm Toibin

It is the late 1960s in Ireland. Nora Webster is living in a small town, looking after her four children, trying to rebuild her life after the death of her husband. She is fiercely intelligent, at times difficult and impatient, at times kind, but she is trapped by her circumstances, and waiting for any chance which will lift her beyond them.

Slowly, through the gift of music and the power of friendship, she finds a glimmer of hope and a way of starting again. As the dynamic of the family changes, she seems both fiercely self-possessed but also a figure of great moral ambiguity, making her one of the most memorable heroines in contemporary fiction.

The portrait that is painted in the years that follow is harrowing, piercingly insightful, always tender and deeply true. Nora Webster is a novel that illuminates our own lives in a way that is rare in literature. Its humanity and compassion forge an unforgettable reading experience.

Review

Good reads bring us into close encounters with remarkable characters – a metamorphosis takes place and we merge with that character, their lived experiences feeling as if they were our own. Nora Webster, the protagonist of Colm Tóibín’s latest masterwork, is one such unforgettable character destined to live beyond the page, eternally memorialised in the minds of readers.

Tóibín’s beautiful prose, skilful characterisation and reflective dialogue give form and shape to this impressive work. But the book’s power comes from the evocative and deeply intimate portrayal of Nora and the grief she suffers following the death of her husband, her greatest love. A mother of four, Nora must navigate her heartbreak while tending to the needs of her children, whose own suffering manifests in disturbing ways. Nora’s intuitive empathy as a mother casts a light on the shadows of this family’s sorrow. But fear is also her companion, and Nora must learn to mediate difficult relationships with extended family without her husband’s harmonising effect.

Place, too, is important in this story. Set in the close-knit community of Wexford, Ireland, where Tóibín himself grew up, the smothering experience of small-town politics is played out – it’s a place where everybody knows your business. Nora feels stifled by her community’s well-meaning yet intrusive enquiries into her wellbeing and struggles to know herself separate to others’ expectations of her. And yet it is the support of the community that gives her the strength to come into herself as never before.

The political unrest of Bloody Sunday, which saw civil rights protestors shot down by the British Army, forms a backdrop to this story and adds to the sense of emotional upheaval that accompanies destabilising life experiences.


Natalie Platten works as a bookseller at Readings Malvern.

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