A widow’s interior life as she emerges from grief
“Nora Webster” (Scribner), by Colm Toibin
“Nora Webster” is a compelling portrait of a grieving widow’s interior life as she slowly emerges from the pain of her husband’s death. The story is filtered so completely through Nora’s point of view that the reader almost can’t see how emotionally cloistered she’s become until others point it out. “Stop grieving, Nora! The time for that is over,” a nun says after encountering Nora on a beach in fog so thick she “could barely see ahead of her.”
That fog is a metaphor for Nora’s mental state as she tries to rebuild her life. Fans of Toibin’s best-selling novel “Brooklyn” — an Irish immigrant tale and forthcoming movie — will find “Nora Webster” less plot-driven than “Brooklyn,” but the new book’s closely observed small moments in many ways make “Nora Webster” a more emotionally satisfying read.
As a widow with four children, Nora’s precarious financial situation forces her to sell a family summer home and take a part-time job. But what really weighs her down are her obsessive thoughts, not her material circumstances. She lives in County Wexford, Ireland, in a place where everyone knows everything about every family. “It’s a small town and it will guard you,” the nun tells her in their meeting on the beach. But Nora derives no comfort from well-meaning neighbors paying endless condolence calls; she even shrinks from going in a store because “someone she knew would see her and want to sympathize.” She constantly broods over perceived slights, office politics, class distinctions and incidents that happened years before. Even her closest family relationships seem awkward. Describing Christmas with her children, Nora says, “We all had our own thoughts, and it was hard to know what to say.”
Gradually, though, she forces herself to face the world. She dyes her hair, takes up singing and redecorates. The book’s climax, a powerful scene involving a vision of Nora’s late husband Maurice, will likely move many readers to tears. In its aftermath, a kindly aunt urges Nora to clean out the closets still filled with Maurice’s clothes. After all, says the aunt, he’s been dead three years. As Maurice’s clothes are packed, it’s clear that Nora is done mourning.