Nora Webster is not your typical heroine. The protagonist of Colm Toibin’s eighth novel is a newly widowed 44-year-old in southeastern Ireland who finds herself stripped bare of the satisfying life she’s been living when her husband dies after a short illness. As the story opens she is annoyed and uncomfortable with neighbors she’s known her whole life when they come by to express their sorrow at the loss of Maurice, a beloved teacher.
Now Nora’s life feels empty, though she has two young sons at home who get little attention from her. She has not worked for years and her two older children, both daughters, are away at school. Even her Aunt Josie, who cared for the boys during the weeks Maurice was dying, keeps her distance, angry that Nora never once visited them during that period or even called. We readers are not sure if Nora needs a big hug or a good shaking.
Maurice was the lifeblood of the couple and now she stands alone with nothing to look forward to. “She had to conclude she was interested in nothing at all.” But Toibin assures us Nora wants to know how to live now. She is soon offered a job in the office where she worked before her children were born—she had “operated with an efficiency that was still remembered”—so her concern about money pushes her into it.
The events that bring Nora once again into the world are not dramatic. As in life, they are small moments that sometimes lead to major shifts. Nora’s gift with numbers is noted by a neighbor who asks her be a scorekeeper at a game night in a bar. The atmosphere is festive and the drinks keep coming. Before long Nora is singing a German song with a friend for the crowd. “She did not know her voice could be so deep … she found herself breathing and no fear now of the higher notes.” She feels “light, almost happy for a moment.”
She is encouraged to work on her singing. “It was only after a month, when she had had four or five lessons, that she realized that the music was leading her away from Maurice, away from her life with him.” An elderly couple invites her to join the Gramaphone Society, a club that Maurice and his friends mocked, but this connection shows her the joy of owning records and she begins to fill her house with music.
Toibin’s writing style left me wanting. He gives no description of his characters’ looks or how any setting feels. It is only through a casual mention of a television show or conversations about the violence in Northern Ireland that we understand that the story takes place in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Yet his stark style allows us to experience a life change as his character does. Just don’t expect to love Nora Webster.