Set in Wexford, Ireland, Colm Tóibín’s magnificent seventh novel introduces the formidable, memorable, and deeply moving Nora Webster. Widowed at forty, with four children and not enough money, Nora has lost the love of her life, Maurice, the man who rescued her from the stifling world to which she was born. And now she fears she may be sucked back into it. Wounded, selfish, strong-willed, clinging to secrecy in a tiny community where everyone knows your business, Nora is drowning in her own sorrow and blind to the suffering of her young sons, who have lost their father. Yet she has moments of stunning insight and empathy, and when she begins to sing again, after decades, she finds solace, engagement, a haven—herself.
Nora Webster “may actually be a perfect work of fiction” (Los Angeles Times), by a “beautiful and daring” writer (The New York Times Book Review) at the zenith of his career, able to “sneak up on readers and capture their imaginations” (USA TODAY). “Miraculous...Tóibín portrays Nora with tremendous sympathy and understanding” (Ron Charles, The Washington Post).
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About the Author
Date of Birth:May 30, 1955
Place of Birth:Enniscorthy, County Wexford, Ireland
Education:St. Peter's College, Wexford; University College, Dublin, B.A. in English and history
Read an Excerpt
“You must be fed up of them. Will they never stop coming?” Tom O’Connor, her neighbour, stood at his front door and looked at her, waiting for a response.
“I know,” she said.
“Just don’t answer the door. That’s what I’d do.”
Nora closed the garden gate.
“They mean well. People mean well,” she said.
“Night after night,” he said. “I don’t know how you put up with it.”
She wondered if she could get back into the house without having to answer him again. He was using a new tone with her, a tone he would never have tried before. He was speaking as though he had some authority over her.
“People mean well,” she said again, but saying it this time made her feel sad, made her bite her lip to keep the tears back. When she caught Tom O’Connor’s eye, she knew that she must have appeared put down, defeated. She went into the house.
That night a knock came at almost eight o’clock. There was a fire lighting in the back room and the two boys were doing their homework at the table.
“You answer it,” Donal said to Conor.
“No, you do.”
“One of you answer it,” she said.
Conor, the younger one, went out to the hall. She could hear a voice when he opened the door, a woman’s voice, but not one that she recognised. Conor ushered the visitor into the front room.
“It’s the little woman who lives in Court Street,” he whispered to her when he came into the back room.
“Which little woman?” she asked.
“I don’t know.”
May Lacey shook her head sadly when Nora came into the front room.
“Nora, I waited until now. I can’t tell you how sorry I am about Maurice.”
She reached out and held Nora’s hand.
“And he was so young. I knew him when he was a little boy. We knew them all in Friary Street.”
“Take off your coat and come into the back room,” Nora said. “The boys are doing their exercise, but they can move in here and turn on the electric fire. They’ll be going to bed soon anyway.”
May Lacey, wisps of thin grey hair appearing from under her hat, her scarf still around her neck, sat opposite Nora in the back room and began to talk. After a while, the boys went upstairs; Conor, when Nora called him, was too shy to come down and say good night, but soon Donal came and sat in the room with them, carefully studying May Lacey, saying nothing.
It was clear now that no one else would call. Nora was relieved that she would not have to entertain people who did not know each other, or people who did not like each other.
“So anyway,” May Lacey went on, “Tony was in the hospital bed in Brooklyn, and didn’t this man arrive into the bed beside his, and they got talking, and Tony knew he was Irish, and he told him his wife was from the County Wexford.”
She stopped and pursed her lips, as though she was trying to remember something. Suddenly, she began to imitate a man’s voice: “Oh, and that’s where I’m from, the man said, and then Tony said she was from Enniscorthy, oh and that’s where I’m from too, the man said. And he asked Tony what part of Enniscorthy she was from, and Tony said she was from Friary Street.”
May Lacey kept her eyes fixed on Nora’s face, forcing her to express interest and surprise.
“And the man said that’s where I’m from too. Isn’t that extraordinary!”
She stopped, waiting for a reply.
“And he told Tony that before he left the town he made that iron thing—what would you call it?—a grille or a guard on the windowsill there at Gerry Crane’s. And I went down to look at it and it’s there all right. Gerry didn’t know how it got there or when. But the man beside Tony in the bed in Brooklyn, he said that he made it, he was a welder. Isn’t that a coincidence? To happen in Brooklyn.”
Nora made tea as Donal went to bed. She brought it into the back room on a tray with biscuits and cake. When they had fussed over the tea things, May Lacey sipped her tea and began to talk again.
“Of course, all of mine thought the world of Maurice. They always asked for him in their letters. He was friends with Jack before Jack left. And of course Maurice was a great teacher. The boys looked up to him. I always heard that said.”
Looking into the fire, Nora tried to think back, wondering if May Lacey had ever been in this house before. She thought not. She had known her all her life, like so many in the town, to greet and exchange pleasantries with, or to stop and talk to if there was news. She knew the story of her life down to her maiden name and the plot in the graveyard where she would be buried. Nora had heard her singing once at a concert, she remembered her reedy soprano—it was “Home Sweet Home” or “Oft in the Stilly Night,” one of those songs.
She did not think that May Lacey went out much except to the shops, or to mass on Sundays.
They were silent now, and Nora thought that maybe May would go soon.
“It’s nice of you to come up and see me,” she said.
“Oh, Nora, I was very sorry for you, but I felt I’d wait, I didn’t want to be crowding in on you.”
She refused more tea, and when Nora went to the kitchen with the tray she thought that May might stand up and put on her coat, but she did not move from the chair. Nora went upstairs and checked that the boys were asleep. She smiled to herself at the thought of going to bed herself now, falling asleep and leaving May Lacey down below, staring into the fire, waiting for her in vain.
“Where are the girls?” May asked as soon as Nora sat down. “I never see them now, they used to pass up and down all the time.”
“Aine is in school in Bunclody. She’s settling in there now,” Nora said. “And Fiona is doing her teacher training in Dublin.”
“You’d miss them when they go away,” May Lacey said. “I miss them all, I do, but it’s funny, of all of them, it’s Eily I think about most, although I miss Jack too. There was something, I don’t know, I just didn’t want to lose Eily. I thought after Rose died—you know all this, Nora—that she would come home and stay and she’d find some sort of job here, and then one day when she was just back a week or two I noticed her all quiet and it wasn’t like her, and she started to cry at the table, and that’s when we heard the news that her fellow in New York wouldn’t let her come home unless she married him. And she had married him there without telling any of us. ‘Well, that’s that, Eily, then,’ I said. ‘You’ll have to go back to him, so.’ And I couldn’t face her or speak to her, and she sent me photographs of him and her together in New York, but I couldn’t look at them. They were the last thing in the world I wanted to see. But I was always sorry she didn’t stay.”
“Yes, I was sorry to hear that she went back, but maybe she’s happy there,” Nora said and immediately wondered, as May Lacey looked down sadly, a hurt expression on her face, if that was a wrong thing to say.
May Lacey began to rummage in her handbag. She put on a pair of reading glasses.
“I thought I’d brought Jack’s letter but I must have left it behind,” she said.
She examined a piece of paper and then another.
“No, I haven’t got it. I wanted to show it to you. There was something he wanted to ask you.”
Nora said nothing. She had not seen Jack Lacey for more than twenty years.
“Maybe I’ll find the letter and send it to you,” May said.
She stood up to go.
“I don’t think he’s going to come home now,” she said as she put on her coat. “What would he do here? They have their life there in Birmingham, and they’ve invited me over and everything, but I told Jack I’d be happy to go to my reward without seeing England. I think though he’d like to have something here, a place he could visit and maybe Eily’s children or some of the others.”
“Well, he has you to visit,” Nora said.
“He thought you’d be selling Cush,” May said, settling her scarf. She spoke as though it were nothing, but now, as she looked at Nora, her gaze was hard and concentrated and her chin began to tremble.
“He asked me if you’d be selling it,” she said and closed her mouth firmly.
“I’ve made no plans,” Nora said.
May pursed her lips again. She did not move.
“I wish I’d brought the letter,” she said. “Jack always loved Cush and Ballyconnigar. He used to go with Maurice and the others, and he always remembered it. And it hasn’t changed much, everyone there would know him. The last time he came home he didn’t know half the people in the town.”
Nora said nothing. She wanted May to leave.
“I’ll tell him I mentioned it to you anyway. That’s all I can do.”
When Nora did not reply, May looked at her, clearly annoyed at her silence. They walked out and stood in the hall.
“Time is the great healer, Nora. That’s all I can tell you. And I can tell you that from experience.”
She sighed as Nora opened the front door.
“Thank you for calling up, May,” Nora said.
“Good night now, Nora, and look after yourself.”
Nora watched her as she made her way slowly down along the footpath towards home.
She drove to Cush in the old A40 one Saturday that October, leaving the boys playing with friends and telling no one where she was going. Her aim in those months, autumn leading to winter, was to manage for the boys’ sake and maybe her own sake too to hold back tears. Her crying as though for no reason frightened the boys and disturbed them as they gradually became used to their father not being there. She realised now that they had come to behave as if everything were normal, as if nothing were really missing. They had learned to disguise how they felt. She, in turn, had learned to recognise danger signs, thoughts that would lead to other thoughts. She measured her success with the boys by how much she could control her feelings.
As she drove down the hill outside The Ballagh and caught her first glimpse of the sea, it occurred to her that she had never been alone before on this road. In all the years, one of the boys, or the girls when they were younger, would shout out “I can see the sea” just here and she would have to make them sit down and quieten.
In Blackwater, she thought of stopping for cigarettes or chocolate or anything to postpone her arrival at Cush. But she was sure that someone she knew would see her and want to sympathize with her. The words came easily: “I’m sorry” or “I’m sorry for your trouble.” They all said the same thing, but there was no formula for replying. “I know” or “Thank you” sounded cold, almost hollow. And they would stand looking at her until she could not wait to get away from them. There was something hungry in the way they held her hand or looked into her eyes. She wondered if she had ever done this to anybody, and thought that she had not. As she turned right towards Ballyconnigar she realised that she would feel much worse if people began to avoid her. It struck her that they were probably doing so, but she had not noticed.
The sky had darkened now and drops of rain hit the windscreen. It seemed much barer here, more wintry than the countryside on the road to Blackwater. She turned left at the ball alley for Cush and she allowed herself the brief respite of imagining that this was some time in the recent past, a dark summer’s day with a threatening sky and she had gone into Blackwater for meat and bread and a newspaper. She had thrown them lightly on the back seat, and the family were all in the house beside the marl-pond, Maurice and the children, and maybe one or two friends with them, and the children had slept late, and they would be disappointed now that the sun was not shining, but it wouldn’t stop them playing rounders or messing in front of the house or going to the strand. But if the rain was down for the day, of course, they’d stay in and play cards until the two boys would grow irritable and come to her to complain.
She let herself imagine all of this for as long as she liked. But as soon as she caught a view of the sea and the horizon beyond the Corrigans’ roof, such imaginings were no use to her, she was back in the hard world again.
She drove the car down the lane and unlocked the large galvanised gates. She parked in front of the house and closed the gates again so that no one could see the car. She would have loved it had one of her old friends been here, Carmel Redmond or Lily Devereux, who could talk to her sensibly not about what she had lost or how sorry they were, but about the children, money, part-time work, how to live now. They would have listened to her. But Carmel lived in Dublin and only came in the summer and just Lily came from time to time to see her mother.
Nora sat back into the car as the wind from the sea howled around her. The house would be cold. She should have taken a heavier coat with her. She knew that wishing friends were with her or allowing herself to shiver in the car like this were ways of postponing the moment when she would have to open the door and walk into the empty house.
And then an even fiercer whistling wind blew up and seemed as though it would lift the car. Something she had not allowed herself to think before but had known for some days now came into her mind and she made a promise to herself. She would not come here again. This was the last time she would visit this house. She would go in now and walk through these few rooms. She would take with her whatever was personal and could not be left behind, and then she would close this door and drive back to the town, and, in future, she would never take that turn at the ball alley on the road between Blackwater and Ballyconnigar.
What surprised her was the hardness of her resolve, how easy it seemed to turn her back on what she had loved, leave this house on the lane to the cliff for others to know, for others to come to in the summer and fill with different noises. As she sat looking out at the bruised sky over the sea, she sighed. Finally, she let herself feel how much she had lost, how much she would miss. She got out of the car, steadying herself against the wind.
The front door opened on to a tiny hall. There were two rooms on each side, the rooms on the left with bunk beds, a living room on the right with a tiny kitchen and bathroom behind it, and their room beside it, peaceful, away from the children.
Each year in early June they came here, all of them, on a Saturday and Sunday, even if the weather was not good. They brought scrubbing brushes and mops and detergent and cloths for cleaning windows. They brought mattresses that had been well aired. It was a turning point, a mark on the calendar that meant the beginning of summer, even if summer was going to be grey and misty. The children, in the years she wanted to remember now, were noisy and excited at the start, as though they were an American family from The Donna Reed Show. They imitated American accents and gave each other instructions, but they soon grew tired and bored and she let them play or go down to the strand or walk into the village. And this was when the serious work began. When the children were out of the way, Maurice could do things like paint the woodwork, use distemper on the cement; the lino on a floor could be covered in the places where there were holes and she could patch the wallpaper where there was mould or too many stains, and for this she would need silence and concentration. She enjoyed measuring down to the last fraction of an inch, making the paste to the right consistency, and cutting up bright new patches of wallpaper in floral patterns.
Fiona hated spiders. That was something Nora remembered now. And cleaning the house meant, more than anything, displacing spiders and beetles and clocks and all types of creepy-crawlies. The boys loved Fiona screaming, and Fiona herself enjoyed screaming too, especially as her father would protect her with elaborate gestures. “Where is it?” he would shout, mimicking the giant in “Jack and the Beanstalk,” and Fiona would run to him and hold him.
That was the past, then, she thought as she walked into the living room, and it cannot be rescued. The smallness and coldness of the room gave her an odd satisfaction now. There was clearly a leak in the galvanised tin roof because there was a fresh stain on the ceiling. The house rattled as a gust of wind brought a hard sheet of rain against the glass. The windows would have to be repaired soon, and the wood had begun to rot. And who knew how long it would take for the cliff to be eaten away as far back as here and their house to be dismantled on the orders of the county council? Someone else could worry now. Someone else could repair the leaks and treat the walls for damp. Someone else could rewire and repaint this house, or abandon it to the elements when the time came.
She would sell it to Jack Lacey. Nobody who lived locally would want to buy it; they knew what a bad investment it would be, compared to houses in Bentley or Curracloe or Morriscastle. No one from Dublin who saw the house in this state would make an offer for it. She looked around the room and shuddered.
She walked into the children’s bedrooms and into their own bedroom, and she knew that for Jack Lacey in Birmingham owning this would be a dream, part of a memory of scorching hot Sundays, and boys and girls on bicycles, and bright, open possibilities. On the other hand, she imagined him coming into the house in a year or two, when he was back for a fortnight in Ireland, with the ceiling half fallen in and cobwebs everywhere and the wallpaper peeling and the windows broken and the electricity cut off. And the summer’s day all drizzly and dark.
She looked through drawers, but there was nothing that she wanted. Only yellow newspaper and bits of twine. Even the crockery and kitchen utensils seemed not worth taking home. In the bedroom, she found some photographs and some books in a locker and she gathered these to take with her. Nothing else. The furniture was worthless, the lightshades were already dingy and worn. She remembered buying them in Woolworth’s in Wexford only a few years earlier. Everything rotted and faded in this house.
The rain began to pour down. She took a mirror from the bedroom wall, noting how clean the space it covered had remained, compared to the discoloured, dirty wallpaper all around.
At first she thought the knocking she heard was something banging against the door or the window in the wind. But when it persisted and she heard a voice, she realised that she had a visitor. She was surprised because she had thought that no one had noticed her approach and no one could see the car. Her first instinct was to hide, but she knew that she had already been seen.
As she opened the latch, the front door blew in towards her. The figure outside was wearing an oversized anorak, the large hood of which was half covering the face.
“Nora, I heard the car. Are you all right?”
Once the hood was pulled down, she recognised Mrs. Darcy, whom she had not seen since the funeral. Mrs. Darcy followed her inside as she closed the door.
“Why didn’t you call in first?” she asked.
“I’m just here for a few minutes,” Nora said.
“Get into the car and come on up to the house. You can’t stay here.”
Once more she noted the hectoring tone, as though she were a child, unable to make proper decisions. She had tried since the funeral to ignore this tone, or tolerate it. She had tried to understand that it was shorthand for kindness.
Just now, she would have relished taking her few possessions from the house, putting them in the car and driving out of Cush. But it could not be done, she would have to accept Mrs. Darcy’s hospitality.
Mrs. Darcy would not get into the car with her, insisting that she was too wet. She would walk back to her house, while Nora drove, she said.
“I’ll be a few more minutes. I’ll follow you up,” Nora said.
Mrs. Darcy looked at her puzzled. Nora had tried to sound casual, but she had succeeded instead in sounding secretive.
“I just want to collect a few things to bring home,” she said.
Her visitor’s eyes lit on the books and photographs and the mirror resting against the wall, then she swiftly took in everything else in the room. And Nora felt that Mrs. Darcy understood immediately what she was doing.
“Don’t be long now,” she said. “I’ll have the tea ready for you.”
When Mrs. Darcy had left, Nora closed the door and went back into the house.
It was done. In her all-embracing glance around the room, Mrs. Darcy had made it seem real. Nora would leave this house and never come back. She would never walk these lanes again and she would let herself feel no regret. It was over. She took up the few things she had collected and put them in the boot of the car.
Mrs. Darcy’s kitchen was warm. She put fresh scones on a plate with melting butter and poured the tea.
“We were wondering how you were getting on but Bill Parle told us the night he went in that your house was full of people. Maybe we should have gone in all the same, but we thought we’d leave it until after Christmas when you might like the company more.”
“There have been a lot of visitors,” Nora said. “But you know you’re welcome any time.”
“Well, there are a lot of people who are very fond of you,” Mrs. Darcy said. She took off her apron and sat down. “And we were all worried about you, that you wouldn’t come down here anymore. Carmel Redmond, you know, was away when it happened and she was shocked.”
“I know. She wrote to me,” Nora said, “and then she called in.”
“So she told us,” Mrs. Darcy said, “and Lily was here that day and she said that we should be looking out for you. And I used to wait for that day when you’d all come down and do up the house. For me, it was the beginning of the fine weather. My heart would lift when I’d see you coming.”
“I remember one year,” Nora said, “it was raining so hard you took pity on us and made us all come up here for our tea.”
“And you know,” Mrs. Darcy said, “your children have the best manners. They are so well reared. Aine used to love coming to see us. All of them did, but she was the one we knew best. And Maurice used to come on a Sunday if there was a match on the wireless.”
Nora looked out at the rain. It was tempting now to mislead Mrs. Darcy, to tell her that they were going to keep coming down here, but she could not do that. And she felt that Mrs. Darcy understood her silence, had been watching for some clue, something said or left unsaid, to confirm her impression that Nora was going to sell the house.
“Now, what we decided,” Mrs. Darcy said, “was that next year we’d do up the house for you. I was looking at it just now, and it could do with some patching on the galvanise, and we’ll be getting that done on the barn here anyway, and so they might as well go down to you. And we’ll take turns to do the rest of it. I have a key, and we could have surprised you, but Lily said that I was to ask you, and I was going to do that after Christmas. She said it was your house, and we shouldn’t be intruding.”
Nora knew that she should tell her now, but there was something too effusive and warm in Mrs. Darcy’s tone that stopped her.
“But I thought it would be nice for you,” Mrs. Darcy went on, “to come down and have it all done. So don’t say anything now, but let me know if you don’t want us to do it. And I’ll hold on to the key unless you want it back.”
“No. Of course not, Mrs. Darcy. I’d like you to hold on to the key.”
Maybe, she thought as she drove towards Blackwater, maybe Mrs. Darcy had presumed all along that she was going to sell the house, and realised that cleaning it up would increase its value; or maybe Mrs. Darcy had presumed nothing, maybe Nora herself was watching everyone too closely to see what they thought of her. But she knew she had behaved strangely in closing the gates when she had parked the car in front of the house, in seeming almost furtive when Mrs. Darcy called, and in not instantly accepting or turning down her offer to help with the house.
She sighed. It had been awkward and difficult, and now it was finished. She would write to Mrs. Darcy and Lily Devereux and Carmel Redmond. Often in the past, when she made a decision like this, she changed her mind the next morning, but this time it was not like that, she would not change her mind.
On the road back to Enniscorthy, she began to calculate. She did not know how much the house was worth. She would think of a figure and send it to Jack Lacey in a sealed envelope—she did not want to negotiate with May Lacey—and if he offered less than she asked for, she would accept it as long as it was reasonable. She did not want to have to advertise the house in the newspaper.
The car was taxed and insured until Christmas. She had planned to give it up then, but if she sold the house, she thought, she would keep the car or buy a newer model. The house money would also pay for the black marble gravestone for Maurice that she wanted, and she would be able to rent a caravan in Curracloe for a week or two next summer. What she had left she could use for household expenses and to buy some new clothes for herself and the girls. And then keep something for an emergency.
The house—she smiled to herself—would become like the two and sixpence a man had given Conor a few summers earlier. She could not remember which summer it was, but it was before his father was sick and it was before he really understood the value of money. Conor had given the two and sixpence to Maurice to mind for him and then all summer, every time they went to Blackwater, he drew on this money, confidently demanding a fresh instalment from his father. When they told him it was all gone, he had refused to believe them.
She wrote to May Lacey, enclosing a letter for Jack. Within a short time, she had a letter from him agreeing to the price she had suggested. She replied with the name of a solicitor in the town who would draw up the contract of sale.
She waited for the right moment to tell the boys about selling the house in Cush, and when she began, she was shocked at how concerned they both seemed, how attentive, as though by listening carefully they might hear something that would have a serious effect on their future. As she spoke to them about how useful the money would be, she learned that they already knew that she had planned to sell the car, although she had not told them this. They did not smile, or even appear relieved, when she said that they were going to keep the car.
“Will we still be able to go to the university?” Conor asked.
“Of course,” she said. “What made you think about that?”
“Who will pay?”
“I have other money saved up for that.”
She did not want to say that maybe their uncle Jim and aunt Margaret would pay. They were Maurice’s older brother and sister who had not married and lived together in the old family house in the town. The boys remained absolutely still; they watched her intently. She went out to the kitchen and turned on the kettle and when she came back into the room, they had not moved.
“We’ll be able to go on holidays to different places,” she said. “We’ll be able to get a caravan in Curracloe or Rosslare. We’ve never stayed in a caravan.”
“Would we be able to stay in Curracloe the same time as the Mitchells?” Conor asked.
“If we like. We could find out when they’re going and go at the same time.”
“Would it be for one week or two weeks?” Conor asked.
“Or longer if we liked,” she said.
“Are we going to b-buy a c-caravan?” Donal asked.
“No, we’ll rent one. Buying one would be too much responsibility.”
“Who’s going to b-buy the house?” Donal asked.
“It’s very private now. If I tell you, you can’t tell anyone, but I think that May Lacey’s son is going to buy it. You know, the one who’s in England.”
“Is that why she came here?”
“I suppose it is, yes.”
She made tea and the boys pretended to watch the television. She had, she knew, unsettled them. Conor had become all red-faced and Donal was staring at the floor as if awaiting punishment. She picked up a newspaper and tried to read. She knew it was important to stay in the room, not to leave them, despite an urge to go upstairs and do anything, empty out cupboards, wash her face, clean the windows. Eventually, she felt she would have to say something.
“We could go to Dublin next week.”
They looked up.
“Why?” Donal asked.
“For a day out, you could take a day off school,” she said.
“I have d-double science on Wednesday,” Donal said. “I hate it, but I c-can’t miss it, and I have F-french with Madame D-duffy on Monday.”
“We could go on Thursday.”
“In the car?”
“No, we could go on the train. And we could see Fiona, that’s her half-day.”
“Do we have to go?” Conor asked.
“No. We’ll only go if we like,” she said.
“What will we tell the school?”
“I’ll send in a note saying that you have to go to the doctor.”
“I d-don’t need a note if it’s j-just one day,” Donal said.
“We’ll go then. We’ll have a nice day out. I’ll write to Fiona.”
She had said it to break the silence and to let them know that there would always be outings, things to look forward to. But it made no difference to them. The news that she was selling the house in Cush seemed to bring home something that they had been managing not to think about. In the days that followed, however, they brightened up again, as though nothing had been said.
For the trip to Dublin she laid their good clothes out for them the night before and made them polish their shoes and leave them on the landing. When she tried to make them go to bed early, they protested that there was something they wanted to watch on the television, and she allowed them to stay up late. Even then, they did not want to go to bed, and when she insisted, they went back and forth to the bathroom and they kept turning on and off the light in their room.
Finally, she went upstairs and found them fast asleep, the bedroom door wide open, their beds tossed. She tried to make them more comfortable, but when Conor began to wake she withdrew, quietly closing the door.
In the morning, they were up and dressed before she was. They brought her tea, which was too strong, and toast. When she got up, she managed to throw the tea down the sink in the bathroom without them noticing.
It was cold. They would drive to the station, she told them, and leave the car in the Railway Square. It would be handy when they came home that night, she said. They both nodded gravely. They already had their coats on.
The town was almost empty as she drove to the station. It was half dark and some lights in houses were still on.
“Which side of the train will we sit on?” Conor asked when they got to the station.
They were twenty minutes early. She had bought the tickets, but Conor refused to sit with her and Donal in the heated waiting room, he wanted to cross over the iron bridge and wave to them from the other side; he wanted to walk down to the signal box. Again and again, he came back to ask when the train would arrive until a man told him to watch the signal arm between the platform and the tunnel, and when it dropped, it would mean that the train was coming.
“But we know it’s coming,” Conor said impatiently.
“It’ll drop when the train is in the tunnel,” the man said.
“If you were in the tunnel and the train came, you’d be mincemeat,” Conor said.
“Begoboman, you’d be found in little bits all right. And, you know something, all the cups and saucers rattle in the houses when the train goes under,” the man said.
“They don’t rattle in our house.”
“That’s because the train doesn’t go under your house.”
“How do you know?” Conor said.
“Oh, I know your mammy well.”
Nora recognised the man, as she did so many others in the town; she thought that he worked in Donoghue’s garage, but she was not sure. Something in his manner irritated her. She hoped that he did not intend to travel to Dublin with them.
Just before the train came, and the boys had once more gone down to the signal box, the man turned to her.
“I’d say they miss their daddy all the same,” he said.
He searched her face for a response and narrowed his eyes with curiosity. She felt that she needed to say something quickly and sharply to prevent him speaking again and, more than anything, to prevent him sitting with them on the journey.
“That’s the last thing they need to hear at the moment, thank you,” she said.
“Oh, now I didn’t mean to . . .”
She moved away from him as the train came and the boys ran excitedly down the platform towards her. She could feel her face reddening, but they noticed nothing as they argued over which were the best seats on the train.
Once the train started, they wanted everything: to view the toilets, to stand in the precarious space between the carriages where the ground could be seen as they sped along, to go to the restaurant and buy lemonade. By the time the train stopped in Ferns, they had done all of these things, and by the time it reached Camolin, they had fallen asleep.
Nora did not sleep; she glanced at the newspaper she had bought in the station, and put it down, and watched the two boys slumped back in their seats sleeping. She would love to have known just then what they were dreaming of. In these months, she realised, something had changed in the clear, easy connection between her and them, and perhaps, for them, between each other. She felt that she would never be sure about them again.
Conor woke and looked at her and went back to sleep with his head resting on his folded arms on the table. She reached out and touched his hair, let her hands run through it, tossing it and straightening it again. Donal was watching her, his calm gaze suggesting to her that he understood everything that was happening, that there was nothing he did not fathom.
“Conor’s fast asleep,” she said and smiled.
“Where are we?” he asked.
“We’re nearly at Arklow.”
By Wicklow, Conor had woken and gone to the toilet again.
“What would happen if you flushed the toilet in a station?” he asked.
“It would all go onto the tracks,” she said.
“And when the train is moving, where does it go?”
“We’ll ask the ticket collector,” she said.
“I b-bet you wouldn’t ask him,” Donal said.
“What harm would it do to the tracks in a station?” Conor asked.
“It would be all s-smelly,” Donal said.
The morning was windless, the clouds on the horizon were grey and the sea beyond Wicklow the colour of steel.
“When will the tunnels start?” Conor asked.
“It’s a while now,” she said.
“After the next station?”
“Yes, after Greystones.”
“Will that be long?”
“Read your comic,” she suggested.
“The tracks are too bumpy.”
At the first tunnel, the boys covered their ears against the rushing noise, vying with each other in mock fright. The next tunnel was much longer. Conor wanted Nora to cover her ears as well, and she did it to please him, because she knew how little sleep he had had, and how irritable he could be, and how easy it would be to upset him. Donal was already bored covering his ears, but he moved close to the window when the train came out of the tunnel and there was a sheer drop into the rough waters below. Conor now had moved beside her, making her move so he could be at the window too.
“We could fall over,” he said.
“No, no, the train has to stay on the tracks. It’s not like a car,” she said.
He kept his nose up against the window, fascinated by the danger. Donal, also, did not move from the window even when the train came into Dún Laoghaire station.
“Is that the end?” Conor asked.
“We’re nearly there,” she said.
“Where are we going to go first? Are we going to see Fiona first?”
“We’re going to go to Henry Street.”
“Yippee!” Conor shouted. He was trying to stand on the seat, but she made him sit down.
“And we’re going to have our dinner in Woolworth’s,” she said.
“In the self-service?”
“Yes, so we don’t have to wait.”
“Can I have orange with my dinner and no milk?” Conor asked.
“Yes,” she said. “You can have whatever you like.”
They got off at Amiens Street and walked through the damp and dilapidated station. They moved slowly along Talbot Street, stopping to look into shop windows. She forced herself to relax, there was nothing to do, they could waste time wherever they wanted. She gave them ten shillings each to spend, but as soon as she did, she felt she had made a mistake, it was too much. They examined the money and looked at her suspiciously.
“Do we have to b-buy something?” Donal asked.
“Maybe we’ll get some books,” she said.
“Can we get comics or an annual?” Conor asked.
“It’s too early for annuals,” Donal said.
As they approached O’Connell Street, they wanted to see where Nelson’s Pillar had been.
“I remember it,” Conor said.
“You c-couldn’t. You’re too young,” Donal told him.
“I do. It was tall and Nelson was on top of it and they blew him into smithereens.”
They crossed O’Connell Street, alert to the several lanes of traffic, cautiously waiting for the lights to change. Nora was aware as they walked into Henry Street that they must seem like country people. The boys managed to take everything in and, at the same time, keep everything at a distance. They watched this world of strangers and strange buildings out of the sides of their eyes.
Conor had become impatient to go into a shop, any shop, to buy something.
“Would you like to look at shoes?” she asked, figuring that when he said no, he would be pleased that he was the one who was deciding where they would go.
“Shoes?” He wrinkled his face in disgust. “Is that what we came to Dublin for?”
“So where do you want to go?” she asked.
“I want to go up and down an escalator.”
“Do you want to do that too?” she asked Donal.
“I s-suppose s-so,” he said glumly.
In Arnotts in Henry Street, Conor wanted Nora and Donal to watch him going up the escalator and then wait for him and watch him coming down. He insisted that they not come with him and not move. He made them promise. Donal was bored.
The first time, Conor kept looking back at them, and they waited while he disappeared at the top and then reappeared on the escalator coming down. He beamed at them. The second time, he grew brave and took some of the steps two by two, all the while holding on to the rail. The next time, he wanted Donal to come with him, but insisted that Nora still wait below. She explained to him that this would have to be the last go, that maybe they could return here in the afternoon, but three times up and down the escalator was enough.
When they came down, she saw that Donal was animated as well. They explained to her that they had found a lift further over and they wanted to go up and down in that.
“One more and that’s it,” she said.
She moved away and began to look at umbrellas, noticing fold-up ones, small enough to put into your handbag, which she had never seen before. She thought that she would buy one in case it rained. As she waited for the cashier, she watched out for the boys, but they did not appear. When she had paid, she walked back to their meeting point, and then to the place near a side door to which the lift descended.
They were not there. She waited between the two points, looking out all the time for them. She thought of going on the lift herself, but realised that this would only add to the confusion. If she stayed here, she thought, she would be bound to see them.
When they found her, they pretended it was nothing, that the lift had merely stopped at every floor. When she told them that she had thought they were lost, they gave each other a look as though something had happened to them in the lift which they did not want her to know about.
By three o’clock, they had seen all the Dublin they wanted to see. They had been to Moore Street and bought a bag of peaches, they had had their dinner in the self-service in Woolworth’s and had been to Eason’s where they bought comics and books. The boys were tired now as they sat in Bewley’s waiting for Fiona. Nora believed that the only thing keeping Conor awake was the idea that you could take as many buns as you liked from the two-tiered plate.
“You have to pay for them,” Nora said.
“How do they know how many you’ve taken?”
“Most people are honest,” she said.
When Fiona arrived the boys became excited and bright again, both wanting to talk at the same time. To Nora, Fiona appeared thin and pale as she sat opposite her.
“Do you want to hear a D-dublin accent?” Donal asked her.
“We were in Moore Street,” Nora said.
“Get the ripe peaches,” Donal said in a singsong voice without a stammer.
“Look at my ‘buke,’” Conor added.
“Very funny,” Fiona said. “I’m sorry I’m late, the buses all come in twos and threes and then you have to wait for ages for the next one.”
“I want to go upstairs on a double-decker bus,” Conor said.
“Conor, let Fiona talk for one second and then you can talk,” Nora said.
“Are you having a nice day out?” Fiona asked.
Fiona’s smile was shy, but her tone was adult and confident. She had changed in these few months.
“Yes, but we’re all tired now and it’s nice to be sitting here.”
Neither of them seemed to know what to say next. Nora realised that her answer to the question had been too formal, as though she were talking to a stranger. Fiona ordered coffee.
“Did you buy anything?” she asked.
“I didn’t really have time,” Nora said. “I got a paperback, that’s all.”
Nora noticed how briskly and efficiently Fiona had ordered the coffee, and how she looked around the café, her eyes sharp, almost critical. As she began to talk to her brothers, however, she became almost girlish again.
“Have you heard from Aine?” Nora asked her.
“She wrote me a short letter. I think she was worried that the nuns read letters and she’s right, they do. So she didn’t say too much. Just that she likes the Irish teacher and got good marks in French for a composition.”
“We can go and see her in a week.”
“She mentioned that.”
“We’re selling the house,” Conor said to Fiona suddenly in a loud voice.
“And are you going to live on the side of the road?” she asked, laughing.
“No, we’re going to rent a caravan in Curracloe,” he said.
Fiona looked at Nora.
“I’m thinking of selling the house in Cush,” Nora said.
“I wondered about that,” Fiona replied.
“I didn’t decide until recently.”
“So you are going to sell it?”
“Yes, I am.”
Nora was surprised to see that while Fiona was trying to smile, there were tears in her eyes. She had not cried at Maurice’s funeral, just remained silent, staying close to her sister and her aunts, but Nora could sense what she felt all the more because she did nothing to show it. Nora did not know what she should say to her now.
She sipped her coffee. The boys did not move or speak.
“Does Aine know?” Fiona asked.
“I didn’t have the heart to tell her in a letter. I’ll tell her when we see her.”
“And you have definitely decided?”
Nora did not reply.
“I was hoping to go there in the summer,” Fiona said.
“I thought you were going to England in the summer.”
“I am, at the end of June, but I finish at the end of May. I’d thought about spending the month of June in Cush.”
“I am sorry,” Nora said.
“He loved that house, didn’t he?”
Fiona lowered her head.
Nora brought Conor with her to find the toilets. When she came back she ordered another coffee.
“Who are you selling the house to?” Fiona asked.
“Jack Lacey, May Lacey’s son, the one in England.”
“May Lacey came to the house,” Conor interrupted.
Donal nudged him and put his finger to his lips.
“The money will come in very handy just now,” Nora said.
“In two years’ time, I’ll be earning a salary,” Fiona said.
“We need the money now,” Nora said.
“Are you not going to get a pension?” Fiona asked. “Has that not come through?”
Nora thought that maybe she should not have said that she needed the money.
“It means we won’t have to sell the car,” Nora said and tried to indicate to Fiona that maybe they should not worry the boys with any more talk about money.
“We had lovely summers there,” Fiona said.
“It’s sad to think of losing it.”
“We’ll go other places on holiday.”
“I thought we’d always have that house,” Fiona said.
They said nothing for a few moments. Nora wanted to go, take the boys back to Henry Street.
“When are you going to sell it?” Fiona resumed.
“As soon as the contract is ready.”
“Aine will be upset.”
Nora stopped herself saying that she couldn’t bear to go there anymore. She would not be able to say that in front of the boys; it would sound too emotional, it would give too much away.
She stood up to go.
“How do you pay here? I can’t remember.”
“You have to get the waitress to fill out a docket,” Fiona said.
“And you have to tell her how many b-buns you’ve had,” Donal said.
When they walked out to Westmoreland Street, Nora wanted to say something else to Fiona but she could not think what. Fiona seemed downcast as she stood on the street. For a moment, Nora felt impatient with her. She was starting her life, she could live where she liked, do what she liked. She did not have to get the train back to the town where everybody knew about her and all the years ahead were mapped out for her.
“We’re going to walk around to Henry Street by the Ha’penny Bridge,” Nora said.
“Make sure you don’t miss the train,” Fiona said.
“How are you getting back to the college?” Nora asked.
“I was going to go to Grafton Street first.”
“Will you not come to the station with us?” Nora asked.
“No, I’ll go,” Fiona said. “I have to get something before I go back and I won’t be in the city centre again for a while.”
As they looked at one another, Nora felt Fiona was hostile, and forced herself to remember how upset she must be, and how lonely she might be too. She smiled as she said that they would have to go and in return Fiona smiled at her and at the boys. As soon as Nora walked away, however, she felt helpless and regretted not having said something kind or special or consoling to Fiona before they left her; maybe even something as simple as asking her when she was coming down next, or emphasising how much they looked forward to seeing her soon. She wished she had a phone in the house so she could keep in more regular touch with her. She thought that she might write Fiona a note in the morning thanking her for coming to meet them.
In Talbot Street, on the way to the station, Conor spent the rest of their money on LEGOs, but could not decide which colour bricks to choose. Although Nora was tired, she listened, paid attention and offered suggestions as Donal stood apart from them. She smiled at the cashier as Conor changed his mind at the cash register and went back to exchange one box of LEGOs for another.
It was dark now and becoming cold. They sat on broken plastic seats in the small café of the station. When Nora reached into her shopping bag to find her purse, she discovered that the peaches that had seemed so fresh and firm just a few hours before had become all soggy. The paper bag had split open. She dumped them in a rubbish bin, knowing that there was no point in trying to take them any further, they would only rot more in the train.
The boys had not realised that it would be dark for the trip home, and as the train began the journey south, the window was covered in condensation. They opened the LEGOs and Conor played with it while Donal read. After a while, Conor moved over to her side of the table and fell asleep against her. She noticed as she looked across at Donal how oddly adult he seemed as he turned a page of his book.
“We’re going to school t-tomorrow, aren’t we?” he asked.
“Oh yes, I think you should,” she said.
He nodded and looked back at his book.
“When is F-fiona coming d-down next?” he asked.
Her words with Fiona in the café, she knew, would work quietly on his mind. She wondered if there was one thing she could say that would stop him worrying and brooding over this.
“You know, Fiona will love the caravan,” she said.
“She d-didn’t s-sound like that,” he said.
“Donal, we have to start a new life,” she said.
He considered her statement for a moment, as though he had a complex piece of homework in front of him. And then he shrugged his shoulders and went back to reading his book.
Nora gently moved Conor aside while she took off her coat in the overheated train. He woke for a second, but did not even open his eyes. She made a note that she must ask about caravans in Curracloe.
In her mind, she stood in the house in Cush again, and she tried to picture the children on a summer’s day, taking their togs and towels from the line and going down to the strand, or herself and Maurice walking home along the lanes at dusk trying to keep the swarms of midges at bay, and coming in to the house to the sound of children playing cards. It was all over and would not come back. The house lay empty. She pictured the small rooms in the darkness, how miserable they would be. Inhospitable. She imagined the sound of rain on the galvanised roof, the doors and windows rattling in the wind, the bare bed-frames, the insects lurking in the dark crevices, and the relentless sea.
As the train made its way towards Enniscorthy, she felt that the house at Cush was more desolate now than it ever had been.
When Conor woke, he looked around him and smiled at her sleepily. He stretched and lay against her.
“Are we nearly home?” he asked.
“Not long now,” she said.
“When we stay in Curracloe,” he asked, “are we going to put the caravan near the Winning Post or are we going to the caravan park up the hill?”
“Oh, near the Winning Post,” she said.
She knew she had answered too quickly. Donal and Conor earnestly considered what she had said. Then Conor glanced at Donal, watching for his reaction.
“Is that d-definite?” Donal asked. As the train slowed down, she managed to laugh for the first time all day.
“Definite? Of course it’s definite.”
When the train shuddered to a stop, they gathered up their belongings quickly. As they made their way to the door, they met the ticket collector.
“Ask him now about the t-toilets,” Donal whispered as he nudged her.
“I’ll tell him that you’re the one who wants to know,” she said.
“Would this sausage like to come to Rosslare with us?” the inspector asked.
“Oh no, he has to go to school tomorrow,” Nora said.
“I’m not a sausage,” Conor said.
The inspector laughed.
As she drove out of the Railway Square she remembered something, and she found herself telling the boys what had come into her mind.
“It was when we were married first, and it must have been during the summer holidays, and didn’t we drive to the station one morning to find that we had missed the train by one second. It was gone and, God, we were very disappointed. But the man in charge that morning was not the usual stationmaster, he was a young fellow, and he was taught in school by your daddy, and he told us to get back into the car and drive to Ferns and he would have the train held for us there. It was only six or seven miles away, and that’s how we caught the train that morning and that’s how we got to Dublin.”
“Did you d-drive or d-did he d-drive?” Donal asked.
“He must have driven queer fast,” Conor said.
“Was he a better d-driver than you?” Donal asked.
She smiled as she answered him.
“He was a good driver. Do you not remember?”
“I remember once he d-drove over a rat,” Donal said.
The streets of the town were empty and there were no other cars. The two boys seemed alert now, ready to talk more, ask more questions. When they got home, she thought, she would light the fire, and they would tire quickly after the long day.
“But why didn’t you just d-drive to D-dublin that d-day and forget the t-train?” Donal asked.
“I don’t know, Donal,” she said. “I’ll have to think about that.”
“Can we go to Dublin someday in the car?” Conor asked. “And then we can stop where we like.”
“Of course we can,” she said as she pulled up in front of the house.
“I’d like to do that,” he said.
Soon she had the fire lit, and the boys were in their pyjamas and ready for bed. They had become quiet and she knew that they would fall asleep as soon as the light in their room was turned off. She wondered if anyone had called that evening, and she pictured someone approaching the house in darkness, and knocking on the front door and getting no answer, and standing there and waiting a while before walking away.
She made herself a cup of tea and came and sat in the armchair beside the fire. She turned on the radio but they were reading sports results and she turned it off. On going upstairs, she found that the boys were sound asleep and she stood watching them before closing the door and leaving them to the night. Downstairs, she wondered if there might be something interesting on the television. She went over and turned it on and waited for the picture to appear. How would she fill these hours? Just then she would have given anything to be back on the train, back walking the streets of Dublin. When the television came on it was an American comedy. She watched it for a few moments but the canned laughter irritated her and she turned it off. The house was silent now except for the crackling of wood in the fireplace.
She thought of the book she had bought in Dublin. She could not remember what had made her buy it. She went out to the kitchen and searched for it in her bag. As soon as she opened the book she put it down again. She closed her eyes. In future, she hoped, fewer people would call. In future, once the boys went to bed, she might have the house to herself more often. She would learn how to spend these hours. In the peace of these winter evenings, she would work out how she was going to live.
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Nora Webster includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Set in Wexford, Ireland, Colm Tóibín’s superb eighth novel introduces the formidable, memorable, and moving Nora Webster. Widowed at forty, with four children and not enough money, Nora has lost the love of her life, Maurice, the man who rescued her from the stifling world to which she was born. And now she fears she may be drawn back into it. Wounded, iron-willed, clinging to privacy in a tiny community where everyone knows everyone else’s business, Nora is drowning in her sorrow and blind to the suffering of her young sons. Even so, Nora finds moments of stunning empathy and kindness, and when she begins to sing again, after decades, she finds solace, engagement, and a haven.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. The novel opens with Nora discussing her intrusive visitors with her neighbor Tom O’Connor (p. 1). How does this set the tone for Nora Webster? What is your first impression of Nora?
2. What motivates Nora to sell the house in Cush? Is she just taking advantage of Jack Lacey’s offer (p. 6), or is it more emotional? Should she have consulted the children?
3. When Nora visits Josie to discuss Donal and Conor, Josie asks Nora, “Did you think they would come home unchanged?” (p. 54) What did Nora expect? Was it realistic? Is Josie being fair when she points out that Nora never called or visited the boys?
4. For her memory card for Maurice, Nora chooses “Too young to die, they say. Too young? No, rather he is blessed in being so young thus to be made swiftly an immortal. He has escaped the tremulous hands of age” (p. 57). Why do Jim and Margaret dislike it? Why does Nora insist on it?
5. When Nora gets her “fashionable cut” from Bernie, her enthusiasm turns to dismay, and she thinks that “anyone who saw her on the way home would think that she had lost her mind” (p. 63). Why does Nora react this way? Sometimes she seems to worry about what others think. Sometimes she is defiant. Where else does she second-guess her choices?
6. When Nora meets with William and Peggy Gibney to discuss working for them, she thinks of how Peggy and Francie Kavanaugh’s lives have changed since Nora first worked at Gibney’s. Is Nora comparing herself to them? Do either of them have anything that Nora wants?
7. On a beach trip with her sons (p. 129), Nora wonders about having never thought about whether the boys are happy or not. “Being with Donal sometimes made her afraid, but being with Conor could make her even more afraid, afraid for his innocence, his sweet loyalty, his open need to be taken care of.” Why does Nora feel this way?
8. After Francie cuts up Nora’s folders and Nora storms out of Gibney’s (p. 146), unsure if she’ll return, why does she go to the sea at Keatings’ (p. 149)? What effect does Sister Thomas have on Nora?
9. When Nora decides to join the union meeting, she reflects, “Perhaps it was not wise. . . . But it pleased her to be grateful to no one” (p. 176). Where does this need to be unbeholden come from?
10. Why does Donal become so engrossed in photography? Nora thinks he wouldn’t have if Maurice had lived (p. 221). How are his camera and Margaret’s gift of a darkroom a reaction to his father’s death?
11. Laurie tells Nora, “You kept [your singing] to yourself. You saved it up” (p. 242). Is Laurie right? Why would Nora do that?
12. Why is Nora’s record player so dear to her (p. 280)? Consider the passages on pages 282 and 314–15. What does the woman of the Archduke Trio group come to mean to Nora?
13. What is it about Josie that allows Nora to turn to her after she struggles with her pain and insomnia (p. 358)? Is it the same thing that caused her to send the boys to Josie when Maurice was dying? What are the differences and similarities between these two episodes?
14. Throughout the story, family members make plans and keep secrets from Nora—about Una’s engagement (p. 155), Donal’s darkroom (p. 169), Josie’s offer of a trip to Spain (p. 261), Fiona’s worry that Nora is too interested in Paul Whitney (pp. 289–94), and Donal’s decision to go to boarding school (p. 298). Why do they do this?
15. When the British Embassy in Dublin is burned, are they right to panic over Aine? Is Nora correct that they all have a “lingering unease” that can be triggered by any crisis (p. 326)?
16. Does Maurice really appear to Nora or is it a dream (pp. 356–57)? What does it mean?
17. Why does Nora finally burn Maurice’s letters and let her sisters take his clothes away (p. 372)?
18. Nora thinks that no one notices her, but we see Mick Sinnott invite her to the union meeting (p. 174), Phyllis take her to the quiz (p. 192), Laurie give her voice lessons (p.236), and Dan Bolger help her fix up her house (p. 333). Phyllis tells her, “After all you’ve been through, everyone thinks you are . . . Well, dignified” (p. 254). Is Phyllis right? Why doesn’t Nora see this?
19. Nora Webster is bold and independent, fierce and sympathetic at the same time. Does she remind you of other literary heroines? Which ones, and how so?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Remember May Lacey from the beginning of the novel? Her daughter, Eilis Lacey, is the heroine of Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn. Consider picking up Brooklyn to further explore County Wexford and the lives of its inhabitants, both at home in Ireland and abroad in America.
2. Nora watches Gaslight (p. 100) and Lost Horizon (p. 110) with her sons, each film evoking old memories and affecting her in new, unexpected ways as well. Watch one or both of the films and discuss their connections with Nora Webster.
3. The Archduke Trio and Brahms’s German Requiem are integral parts of Nora Webster. Listen to each, read the lyrics, and discuss the effect that each piece has. Why did Colm Tóibín choose these pieces for Nora Webster? What would you have chosen?
4. Nora Webster is set during The Troubles, which plagued Northern Ireland with religious, ethnic, and political strife beginning in the late 1960s. Read Lost Lives by David McKittrick, Seamus Kelters, Brian Feeney, Chris Thornton, and David McVea, or Cal by Bernard MacLaverty for a fictional treatment, and discuss how this political background shapes events in Nora Webster.
Barnes & Noble Review Interview with Colm Tóibín
I mistook another man for Colm Tóibín. Hanging around outside the Authors' Yurt at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, where we had arranged to meet, I saw a man who I supposed was the right age, with the same hair I had seen on the author's photos (two patches, one above each ear).
"Excuse me," I said to the man, "are you Colm?"
"Oh no," he replied, "you'll know Colm when you see him. He has a big round head."
When Tóibín did arrive at the makeshift gazebo where the interview was to be conducted, I saw what the first man meant. Colm looked so distinctive, so dignified, and so akin to the man in the photo in the back of Nora Webster, who places his two hands atop his head, forming a casual diamond with his arms, that I wondered how I could have mistaken anyone else for him.
The idea of Nora Webster, "a powerful study in widowhood" according to the Guardian, didn't appeal to me at first, despite the fact that I had loved Brooklyn, the story of Eilis Lacey, an Irish girl in the 1950s who is removed from the small town she knows and sent to work in America. The book has been turned into a film, scripted by Nick Hornby and starring Saoirse Ronan, that premiered at Sundance in January, garnering five-star reviews. It moves on to the Toronto and Calgary film festivals in Canada, before its general release on November 6th.
Nora Webster, a narrative based on grief and "the dullness of [the central character's] own existence," seemed gray, contemplative, introverted in comparison. I couldn't imagine Nora's story possessing the same vitality as Tóibín's previous book. I was wrong. I came to love the intense and strong-willed Nora, rooting for her against her appalling boss and the injustices done to her and her young children.
I told Tóibín this when I met him how the novel had not only exceeded my expectations but flattened them, through Nora's fierceness, innocence, and gradual rediscovery of the world.
He thanked me warmly. His hands are enormous, but his handshake is gentle, his smile almost shy. When he speaks, he speaks slowly but casually. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation. Hope Whitmore
The Barnes & Noble Review: It's interesting that Northern Ireland and the troubles are a backdrop in Nora Webster, but they don't actually come into the novel they are very much outside, except for when Nora is frightened her daughter may be caught up in the protests. It's quite subtle, though, shown through gossip in the office, dinner table conversations, the TV and radio. How much were they a backdrop to your own growing up?
Colm Tóibín: They moved in and out of focus. If you lived in the south of Ireland, sometimes if there was something big on television you paid a lot of attention and the family discussed it. Then you didn't. Slowly, the two societies moved away from each other, but I think what I have in the book is more or less the way that I remember things. It being there like that.
But also, what I was determined to do, was not to let a public event take, you know, the importance of the novel.
BNR: But there is a point where you lead the reader to believe they might come into the novel.
CT: Yeah, that was deliberate. It is almost like, you know, when you're doing a painting it's the background of the painting.
BNR: At the time, you would have been the same age as Nora's children.
CT: I would have been the same age as the older one, yes.
BNR: But now, Nora is younger than you are, so you're looking back at someone of your parents' generation who is now younger than you. Does that feel strange?
CT: No, when you're writing you don't have any age really. You know, yourself isn't there when you're writing.
There's a kind of self-annihilation process whereby the page is not a mirror, it's blank therefore, you don't really exist at any age you're just working on the characters. So that really wasn't a factor.
BNR: In Nora Webster and Brooklyn, Enniscorthy and Wexford are very important there's a lot about the importance of place, the muted colors, the sea down at Cush. [Colm would later mention in his talk that much of the movie of Brooklyn was filmed in Enniscorthy, giving it a stronger connection to reality.] There's a lot about the small-town atmosphere, where everyone knows one another's stories. It's where you grew up is it in some way an homage to home?
CT: Well, homage would be a strong word, I think.
I just mean that it's harder, it's very hard to make up a place. It's easier to use a real place. So it's using Enniscorthy, it's taking the easier option, which is to really evoke a place that you know where the sun came up in the morning and where the sun went down.
BNR: And you have some fantastic awful characters, who are part of the claustrophobic small town. Mrs. Kelly at the beginning of Brooklyn, who hides the nice bread and tomatoes, only giving them to the higher-caliber customers, and Francie-Pants Kavanagh in Nora.
And Francie-Pants has this great back-story how Nora and her friend left her behind on a bike ride and laughed when she got a puncture. And she never spoke to them again. And this is really important to the story, even though it happened when they were young, and now they're in their forties.
CT: Oh, I think that maybe is one of the ways where it does make a difference being older, when you realize, if someone something happens people never forget, really.
You'll find this when you're older; that if someone doesn't like you now, they'll never like you. And you'll meet them in twenty, thirty, forty years' time, and they still won't like you.
BNR: I thought people grew out of that sort of thing.
CT: No. No. Not things like that, it doesn't.
I mean, I'm sixty. I could meet someone on the street in Dublin that I was at university with and there will be something about them that I won't like and they won't like about me, and we'll always be conscious of that.
That's one of the things you learn as you grow older. That if you don't like someone, you never like them, and they never like you. It's not something you grow out of, no.
BNR: I'm also interested in the importance of religion in your novels, and the role played by those with religious position the power they have. In Brooklyn it is Father Flood who gets Eilis the position in America, and in Nora Webster there's the nun Sister Thomas who sort of glides through the novel and makes people behave.
CT: Yeah, also what I was trying to do was soften the religious figures, you know? It would have been very easy to have made the nun into a sort of monster figure, but she was sort of softened in the book.
And she makes people do the right thing you're right [like when she makes the older Mr Gibney allow his son to marry his pregnant girlfriend]. She's sort of an enabler.
BNR: And you've also written about religion through a re- telling of the events leading up to Good Friday in The Testament of Mary. Is religion important to your writing?
CT: No, but in that book it is. In that book I really wanted to go back to the story told from Mary's point of view, but it was Mary interested me more than religion, you know. Her figure the real figure. And the distance between this sort of idealized figure and the real figure.
BNR: In paintings she's always depicted in this expensive blue, and very holy, so it's a challenge to take her and make her real.
I'm also interested in this thing with the dead the presence of the dead, or the death of a loved one is a common theme in your novels Nora Webster, Brooklyn, The Blackwater Lightship.
At times they become present Sister Thomas says, "We walk among them sometimes," and there's a point in Nora where a very vivid ghost appears, and it's not clear if it's real or an illusion.
CT: Yes, I wanted to leave it like that. That it wouldn't be clear.
You know, it's one of the things that people who have been through an intense loss talk about the thing, the possibility of such things occurring. Days when you're not sure what is what.
BNR: And in Brooklyn you take away Rose, who is so alive, so beautiful, vivacious, kind.
CT: Yes in order to get her [Eilis] home, something big has got to occur. That's the only thing that really can do that. There isn't anything else that would work in the same way.
And there's always a sense of her in Rose's shadow. So her in shadow. Rose in shadow. So when she comes home she's moving into becoming Rose almost, getting work in the same place. So with the Lacey sisters, it's substance and shadow playing with each other.
BNR: I'm interested in your writing process, because much of the power, particularly in Nora, comes from what isn't said. There is a lot of inference with her relationship with her mother for instance. So I was wondering how you refined this, what is your editing process like?
CT: Oh, there's no editing process. I mean, you just write down what's needed what you think is needed. And while I may change words, or pluck things, I mean not much. There's no actual editing process.
BNR: So you don't write then cut?
CT: No, you see, that won't work, because if you don't get it down right the first time, I mean it doesn't mean you don't have to do editing or re-reading, re-writing, but not editing; meaning I'll write this long and later on I'll make it short, that won't work. That won't work.
I mean, well, there are writers who do drafts, knowing there will be later drafts, and that works for them, but I don't do that. It doesn't mean that there won't be later drafts, but I write as though I will never get another chance.
BNR: I love the prosaic details and the way you bring to life the clothes and the housework. There's a point in Nora where, where she's at Catherine's house I actually felt the physical presence of a sink of dirty dishes very palpably, and I wanted to climb into the pages of the book and just wash the damn things so Catherine wouldn't come back and find them. There is something very physical about this domestic detail but they're very much part of the female domain, and in the '60s in Ireland this would have been even more true.
CT: It's just a question of watching, and obviously in a domestic sphere that business of who does what when becomes a sort of power game, almost, you know? You watch it but you don't have to be a man or a woman to watch it you know, you just sort of watch.
Particularly if you're a child. You're with the women more than you're with the men. You pick up on your mother not doing the washing up you wouldn't have to be a girl or a boy to notice that.
BNR: The small things are very important., like when she tries on the dress and walks downstairs to look at herself in the hall mirror and then her daughter doesn't bring her boyfriend home again But at one point you say, "She wondered if she was alone in having nothing between the dullness of her own days and the brilliance of her imagined life." I find myself disagreeing with this, because Nora's outer life isn't truly dull, it's richly developed.
CT: Yeah, but you know, the work she has to go back to is dull. The daily business of going off to do bookkeeping, you know, is dull, I mean that part is dull, so there are some things that are dull.
BNR: Considering how central the inner life is in your novels, I was wondering if you were worried about how that would translate to the screen in a film like Brooklyn.
CT: No. It's a very good script by Nick Hornby, and, she, Saoirse Ronan, manages very well to convey an inner life and the camera John Crowley, who is the director, he managed very well to convey all that. You know, an actress can do that. That's really what actors do. They convey an inner life, by, you know, by simply resting, letting the camera linger on their face.
BNR: You and Nick Hornby, you're very different writers, so I wondered how that worked?
CT: I wanted him because he knows something that I don't know. And he's much more alert to visual culture and popular culture than I am. Everything he does, he has a sort of magic touch, and he's somebody I kind of associate with just knowing something when he's working, how to relate to an audience that I don't really know.
He was in a sense my "dream person," and that would have been like the main reason why I wanted to sign a contract with his particular people what I said was, ''Can you get me Nick Hornby?" We are different, but if you want someone like yourself, then just do it yourself. I wanted somebody who just had one thing I don't have, and he has ten things I don't have. He had written the script for Lynn Barber's An Education he has something in his relationship to an audience that I don't even know anything about.
Tóibín went off to meet the photographer who was taking his picture prior to the talk. I went back to the media tent.
Later, at his talk, he read an extract from Nora Webster, the part of the book where Nora revisits the summer beach where she used to come with Maurice and their children, in winter, after "almost stabbing her boss with a pair of scissors." She finds it desolate, but there is something else too. A feeling that Maurice, too, is there.
His voice is that of a storyteller: slow, smoky, drawn out. I am reminded of a priest who used to come and speak to us in schol assembly when I was a child, telling stories that fascinated us though we were loath to admit it.
When I returned home, and picked up another of his novels, The South, I found myself reading it in his voice.
September 9, 2015