Solemn, stead­fast

Ir­ish widow in Tóibin’s lat­est grap­ples with loss, new­found free­dom

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Faith John­ston

ONE re­viewer has de­scribed Ir­ish au­thor Colm Tóibin as “an ex­pert, pa­tient, fish­er­man of sub­merged emo­tions.” That ex­per­tise served him well in both The Master, a fic­tional por­trait of Henry James, and in Brook­lyn, the story of a young Ir­ish woman’s tran­si­tion to Amer­ica. Now Tóibin has cast his net in some­what darker wa­ters. It is the late 1960s in En­nis­cor­thy, the same Ir­ish vil­lage where both the au­thor and the hero­ine of Brook­lyn grew up. Tóibin is re­turn­ing to fa­mil­iar ter­ri­tory to tell the story of Nora Web­ster, whose hus­band has just died, leav­ing her to raise four chil­dren. Por­traits of grief some­times de­pict an emo­tional roller-coaster, a grasp­ing at straws, or “a year of mag­i­cal think­ing,” as Joan Did­ion put it in her mem­oir of wid­ow­hood, but Nora Web­ster is dif­fer­ent. When we meet her, about a month after her hus­band’s death, she is de­ter­minedly un­der con­trol. Her mother was a drama queen; she will not play that role. When her tears dis­turb her two boys still at home, she de­cides not to cry in their pres­ence. Be­cause she needs money, she gath­ers a few be­long­ings from a beloved the sum­mer cot­tage and sells it. Six months after Mau­rice’s death she be­gins work­ing in the of­fice of the lo­cal flour mill, where she had worked be­fore her mar­riage. For three years (1968-1971) we ob­serve Nora Web­ster’s world in minute de­tail. A man lands on the moon, the trou­bles be­gin in North­ern Ire­land, and for Nora Web­ster the walls of grief re­cede and a changed woman emerges. The old Nora Web­ster, eclipsed so­cially by her out­go­ing, ac­com­plished part­ner, was con­tent with her role as housewife — she wanted noth­ing else. Now she be­comes an as­sertive woman with a pas­sion for mu­sic and a mind of her own. This is the irony of her story: in mar­ry­ing Mau­rice she es­caped the drudgery of do­ing of­fice work from the age of 14, when her own fa­ther died, but now, in los­ing Mau­rice, she is able to push back some of the bar­ri­ers that have limited her life and come into her own. The process, though, is not re­ally a happy one, for her new life means she is leav­ing Mau­rice fur­ther and fur­ther be­hind — and, in any case, it is too late for her to de­velop the mu­si­cal ca­reer she now craves. As her voice teacher says, “We can all have plenty of lives, but there are lim­its.” While the prob­ing of Nora’s life and thoughts rings true much of the time, there are mo­ments of te­dious rep­e­ti­tion. Will oth­ers think her ex­trav­a­gant if she buys a gramo­phone? A new out­fit? What if she has a tele­phone in­stalled? This line of thought never changes. And there are some as­pects of Nora’s life that don’t ring true at all. How could any woman with four chil­dren as­sert that she had “never once in the twen­ty­one years she had run this house­hold, ex­pe­ri­enced a mo­ment of bore­dom or frus­tra­tion?” And how could a woman in her 40s who loved her hus­band show no in­ter­est in other men, even three years after his death? Nora would rather be alone, lis­ten­ing to mu­sic, than any­where else. Surely de­sire must have some­times sur­faced, even in the nar­row, re­pressed world of En­nis­cor­thy. Yet Tóibin, that troller of sub­merged emo­tions, gives not one hint of Nora’s sub­merged libido — not even a shiver.

Tóibin: darker wa­ters

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