Life, afterwards

BY ALEXANDER MATTHEWS

With his new novel, Nora Webster, Colm Tóibín proves once again — with his trademark restraint and poise — that revisiting the familiar, the quiet rhythms of the everyday, can produce something of remarkable depth and power.

Nora Webster lives in a Enniscorthy, the small town in Ireland where Tóibín was born. Here, everybody knows everybody, and news ripples out quickly. It is the late 1960s. Nora’s husband has just died after battling cancer, and now she — a sensible, thoughtful, smart woman — has to rebuild her life without him. There are emotional worries — the way her two young boys are reacting to the loss of their father, for example — and money worries too; for decades she hasn’t had to work — now she must.

Nora Webster is a study of grief so achingly real and close. But there is nothing sentimental or cloying or trite about it — it is clear-eyed, and all the more powerful for it. The novel is also a story of empowerment — the slow and gradual growth of Nora towards herself. Her marriage had been happy, but Tóibín captures how its dissolution creates a space for Nora’s own views and decisions; for her own interests to take root and, ultimately, blossom.

Ireland’s complex politics seeps into the story — through riots seen on the television, through protests read about in newspapers, and changes to the government’s pension policies discussed by the family at the fireside. The late ’60s, a time of change, is a visible backdrop, but a real and natural one — there are no gaudy stage props here, nothing to crowd out or distract the intimate human drama unfolding at the novel’s core.

With his unfussy, unshowy prose, Tóibín’s conjures characters so precisely and aptly — making them real and fleshy on the page within a few sentences. What makes this story linger, the characters stay with you? It is certainly not a dizzying plot, or dazzling poetics. Perhaps it is the realness, the subtlety, the intelligence and wisdom that powers it. Tóibín gives a damn about these characters, and by doing so, his skill as a storyteller ensures you do too. Nora Webster is leading, certainly, an unremarkable life and yes, this world is filled with middle class people who are born, get married and die. But nevertheless, in Tóibín’s contemplation and evocation of the ordinary, something extraordinary has been created.

Nora Webster is published by Viking.

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