Nora Webster

noraNora Webster
by Colm Toibin
2015 / 374 pages (Kindle)
rating – 8.5 / contemp. fiction

Compellingly set in a rural area southwest of Dublin, Ireland between 1969 and 1972, Toibin’s novel is full of interconnected families and lives.  This is a wonderfully nuanced, character-driven story which unfolds slowly, subtly revealing a tale of courage, healing and change.  And there is considerable of change of many kinds from minor personal adjustments to large scale political upheavals.

Nora Webster’s husband, Maurice a  schoolteacher with moderately liberal politics,  has died and been buried and Nora is left to try to live her life as the sole support of their four children, two older girls and two younger sons.  She has no idea how to go about this and she is physically and emotionally exhausted having stayed with her husband at the inadequate local hospital through his last several weeks of excruciating pain.

Quite simply,  Nora is lost and unable to interact or really connect with others, even family members,  appropriately.  She tries new things like getting her hair colored and visiting relatives, even watching television movies with her boys.   She’s also financially  broke and even after selling their small vacation home has to get a low-paying office job –  a kind of mercy hire at a company she had worked for twenty years prior.  Arranging her life will take time and it will not be painless.

I’m going to have to make a character list here – in order of appearance or first mention (there are more but I hope I didn’t miss any actual minor characters):

Chapter 1
Nora Webster – the character whose changes drive the novel –
Maurice Webster – her husband – a school teacher – interested in politics
Conor Webster – Nora’s younger son – about 8 at the beginning of the story
Donal Webster – Nora’s elder son – about 13 to start – developed a stammer
Tom O’Connor – a neighbor
May Lacey – a neighbor  (mother of Elis who went to the US in Toibin’s novel Brooklyn?)
Mrs. Darcy  –  neighbor at Cush (beach) house –
Aine Webster – older daughter of Nora  away at school
Fiona Webster – oldest daughter-of Nora –  away at teacher training
Elis Lacey – daughter- also of  Toibin’s earlier book, Brooklyn
Jack Lacey -May’s son in England – possible buyer for Nora’s summer/old house
Margaret Webster  – Maurice’s sister –  single
Jim Webster Maurice’s brother – single

Chapter 2
Josie – aunt of Nora – took boys in when Maurice was ill
John – Josie’s son

Chapter 3 –
Mrs. Whelan – works for Peggy Gibney
Peggy Gibney – wife of flour mill owner
William Gibney – flour mill owner (where Nora worked 20 years prior)
Sister Catherine –  Gibney – sister of William?
Catherine – sister of Nora –
Mark – husband of Catherine – lots of farmland
Una – sister of Nora – unmarried –
Bernie Prendergast  – local hairdresser
Francis Kavanagh –  old friend from school – now manager at Gilney’s
Dilly Halpin – Catherine’s friend

Chapter 4
a few other friends – Lily Devereaus, Larry Kearney.
Thomas Gibney –  manager at Gibney’s – son/father/brother (?) of William?

Chapter 5
Elizabeth Gibney – William’s daughter – works at Gibney’s
Elsa Doyle – works at Gibney’s
Salesmen at Gibney’s
Roger – Elizabeth’s steady boyfriend
Ray – Elizabeth’s new beau

Chapter 7
Seamus – Una’s boyfriend

Chapter 8
Greta – an old friend of Nora’s – in memory only
Woman at bridge (?)

Chapter 9
William Gibney, Sr. – father of Thomas?
Chemist – with Una and Nora and Seamus at golf club

Chapter 10
Mitt Sinnot – (lorry driver from a prior chapter) – Gibney employee

Chapter 11
Jim Mooney – colleague of Maurice -Donal’s teacher

Chapter 12
Nancy Brophy – quiz game host
Phyllis Langdon – quiz game host
Tom Darcy – neighbor? – Darcy family – chapter 1
Contestants in quiz
man in barroom who knew Maurice
Tim Hegarty – school teacher
Philomena –  wife of Tim
Aiden O’Neill – Maurice’ cousin
Tilly O’Neill – Aiden’s wife

Chapter 14
Laurie O’Keefe – ex-nun, music teacher
Billy O’Keefe – husband of Laurie
members of Gramophone Society
Dr. Radford – member of Society
Mrs. Radford – his wife

Chapter 15
Carol – tour guide in Spain
Merce – hotel employee

Chapter 16
Brother Herlihy – head of Conor’s school
Val Dempsey – teacher at Conor’s school
John Kerrigan – teacher at Conor’s school
Paul Whitney – friend of Fiona
Frank Redmond – choir master in Wexford
Father Doyle –  head of Donal’s college

Chapter 17
Mossey Delaney – painter for Phyllis
Dan Bolger – hardware store owner
Mogue Cloney – construction worker
Doctor Cadigan –

The  social and political times of Ireland in these days is accurately detailed:

Fianna Fail
Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union:
Mona Lisa Smile by Nat King Cole – 1950
Charles Haughey
Widow’s Curse
Bloody Sunday – 1/30/72

Interwoven themes –
Grief/bereavement – From page 86 / Kindle:
“At the moment the only topic she could discuss was herself. And everyone, she felt, had heard enough about her. They believed it was time that she stop brooding and think of other things. But there were no other things. There was only what had happened. It was as though she lived underwater and had given up on the struggle to swim towards air. It would be too much.”
“Finding things to think about was not the problem for her; the problem was that she was on her own now and that she had no idea how to live.” 

Another important and related theme is that of change.  As Nora says to her son,  “Donal, we have to start a new life.”  –

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