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