Nora Webster is Colm Tóibín’s first work since his subtle but seismic novella The Testament of Mary. Repercussions from that slim volume may well have cost him a Booker prize, and they continue to show no signs of abating in the now-dramatised form. Tóibín is no ingénue, and knew full well that the principal protagonist of Testament would prove contentious internationally and most pertinently in his native land, labelled as openly as it was by one critic as “bizarrely” blasphemous in its exploration of vulnerability and the abuse of power. Tóibín ’s Virgin Mary came uncomfortably near several local truths for many tastes. How would he find a heroine to follow? In Nora Webster, he explores his relationship with his own mother.
Interviewed around the publication of this, his most autobiographical fiction to date, Tóibín revealed a childhood trauma – his father died very young and during the months of his terminal illness, his mother attended his hospital bedside in another town, leaving her young sons with family members. During this upheaval, she had no contact whatsoever with her children, nor with those caring for them. As ever with Tóibín, he does not examine that self-evidently dreadful time, but just as he surveys his Mary post-Crucifixion, he traces Nora and her boys in their post-bereavement years.
Told in the third person, but with the most vigilant eye on Nora, Tóibín’s narrator is not quite omniscient. For most of the book, we know little of what Nora feels about her loss, nor her thoughts on her struggles adapting to her new life. We hear nothing of her deathbed vigil – aspects we might expect to learn of a young widow. Nora, like Ireland, is in the grip of transition. Tóibín writes to understand her choices and behaviours, the decisions and times which might have played a part in inducing a stammer in her elder son, Donal – just as the writer experienced in his own life’s parallel time. Donal also has an interesting way of obsessing with photography, capturing nobody in the haar, and with black space.
The book jacket calls Nora “a figure of great moral ambiguity”; she is, and in Tóibín’s masterful non-judgmental, non-justifying showing she evolves. Rarely is dialogue so understated and illuminating. In her there is an angry rejection of convention, but passively rebellious or carried along uncomprehendingly, and wont to kick at the wrong target. Unclear in her own focus, notably in the scene where Nora’s aunt queries her absences and lack of parenting during the period of their bereavement – Nora is lost, mystified by her relative’s attitude; “She knew that she did not think what they thought” and “felt as though she was being accused of something”
Clearly, and understandably this abandonment has long troubled Tóibín. A reviewer, rather oddly and damningly, described this as a well-told novel in which little happens. Tóibín is clear. “Something did happen”; his genius is to probe the said, unsaid and minute, essential tensions in and between characters. And Tóibín’s rhythmic observation is nigh-on hypnotic.
Gradually, Nora learns to live what “belonged to no future she had ever envisaged”, establishing herself in a workplace, growing confident in her musical abilities, and positively Amazonian in her dealings with her son’s schooling issues. She takes possession of her new status. “There was no need to mention it” and “I don’t like people knowing my business” characterise her way with unaddressed grief, which unlike her husband, has no way of remaining buried if she is to move on meaningfully. All is not bleak, however – there is a threaded lightness in the recurrent motif of Nora’s hair, but that is a pointed humour, too.
Notoriously, Tóibín makes himself as uncomfortable as possible when he writes, refusing to feel easy with any word. The Testament of Mary was an almost impossible act to follow, but Tóibín has done so. Beautifully.