Very few male authors are able to inhabit so thoroughly the minds of their female characters as Colm Toibin. Having done this so admirably in "Brooklyn" Toibin again does it in "Nora Webster."
Nora Webster, newly widowed lives with her two sons (two older daughters are away at school) in Enniscorthy, County Wexford in southeastern Ireland. The story is set in the late 1960s and is uncomplicated by today's modern conveniences. Things move slowly in this little town where everyone is part of everyone's business. It is a quiet story of an everyday life. There is one large factory, a flour mill, which Nora left 25 years before, when she married Maurice, a respected schoolteacher. Class consciousness is centered around the lives of the managers and workers in the mill. A workers strike reflects the politics of the times. The clergy and nuns also play a role in the life of the town.
As we read, we fall into the rhythms, the ups and downs of real life. Nora and Maurice had a small circle of friends, but after his death, Nora finds herself isolated from many of her neighbors. This is the story of Nora finding herself in the midst of grief. She is strict, severe, and stoic, a woman who doesn't show her feelings despite her rich inner life which Toibin documents so well for the reader. Nora is not an easy character to like. She often appears cold and unfeeling. While she loves her children fiercely, alone in her suffering, she has no idea of what is going on in her children's lives. Her older son, Donal, has developed a worrying stutter, and daughter, Aine, is involved in the struggles in Northern Ireland. This is just after the Bloody Sunday riots and Toibin's characters are concerned and political in their allegiance with the Catholics in the north. Nora, though seemingly casual in caring for her children, becomes a fierce Celtic woman when she senses they are in trouble. There is a terrific scene when she challenges the head Brother of Donal's school when she realizes he is being treated unjustly.
With the help of her sisters and concerned friends, Nora slowly becomes part of her community again. She returns to the mill where she proves necessary and efficient, she finds pleasure and comfort in singing and music and gives in to her dormant musical talent. This section of the book is wonderfully developed. Nora's personality doesn't change, she remains prickly, but her willingness to accept that she must let go of her grief and move forward is presented in a realistic way.
I enjoyed this quiet read and highly recommend it to all readers. It would be an interesting discussion for a reading group as an exploration of a fully developed character.