Colm Tóibín’s new novel, Nora Webster, never strays from the quiet, deceptive simplicity of its storytelling, and yet this persuasive portrait of a compelling woman blossoms into something greater than the sum of its parts. Set in a small town in County Wexford, Ireland, in the early 1970s, it is the story of a mother navigating the first, tentative days and months of a premature widowhood.
Only in her early 40s, Nora has been left with four children—two daughters away at school and two younger sons still at home—after the untimely death of her beloved husband Maurice. She is a fiercely independent, intelligent and private woman, who pushes against the narrow margins of the nosy, hidebound town where she has lived most of her life. She must make some tough choices, both practical and emotional: whether to sell the family’s beloved cottage; whether to return to work at the suffocating office where she was employed before she married; how best to raise the children, particularly her visibly troubled son, Donal, who has grown asocial and developed a stammer since his father’s death. Suffering no fools gladly, Nora must nonetheless coexist with her parochial neighbors and interfering relatives as she attempts to figure out her next move in a time and culture where women had a prescribed “proper” place.
While she sometimes fails to acknowledge her own sorrow, Nora never wallows in self-pity, and while she may long for the love and protection she had with Maurice, her momentum is forward-facing, both due to her temperament and by necessity.
On the surface a domestic novel, Nora Webster also touches on the politics of Ireland during the Troubles, as well as the country’s firm, if complicated, relationship with Catholicism. With understated grace, Tóibín—who has been shortlisted three times for the Man Booker Prize—has turned a seemingly straightforward story of one woman’s widowhood into a wider exploration of family, community and country.