Posted in Books I have read

Nora Webster – Colm Tóibín

Historical Fiction 4*s
Historical Fiction

At times, unsurprisingly, I found myself struggling with the true portrayal of grief that rolls off the pages of this novel. Nora Webster is forty when we first meet her. Having been a traditional wife, she both fights against and leans into the role of a traditional widow. With her two eldest daughters away studying Nora is reunited with her two young sons, two boys that were looked after by her aunt Josie whilst Nora attended to Maurice during his stay in hospital. It is 1969 and Nora is living on the cusp of a changing world, a world she wasn’t even aware that she wanted to change, after all it was Maurice who was the political one, everyone loved Maurice’s conversation.

‘She wondered now that Maurice was dead if this would change, if she would have to say more’

This is a book, unlike Nora, has a lot to say, but it does so in an almost unobtrusive manner; an author who allows the reader to make the connections through the vignettes of Nora’s life, this being a book that allows us a glimpse of Nora’s life, as well as those of her family, before moving on. It isn’t a book where huge action takes place, rather a lot happens as this family find a new way in a changing world, without Maurice to guide them. So the book details the visitors, the wider family, the day Nora had her hair dyed, the day she sells the holiday home until we are able to build a picture of what life had been like, and what life looks like now. But rest assured, Nora is no wispy character, she can be a formidable opponent and can turn a spiky turn of phrase when necessary!

‘The golf club is a great place for information,’ Nora replied. ‘I’d join it myself if I could play, or if I was nosy enough.’

The story is set in Wexford, Ireland and Maurice had rescued Nora from an unhappy home with a mother who seemingly despised her. When left alone Nora is initially displays the very truisms of grief, wanting to be with people and yet longing for the time when she is left alone:

‘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.’

Finding other’s expectation of how a widow should behave, intrusive:

‘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 their eyes. She wondered if she had ever done that to anybody, and thought that she had not.’

And that was without the practical considerations of how they were to live now that there was little income. Rescue came in the form of her old job, the one she had before Maurice at Gibney’s. Reluctantly Nora goes to work leaving the boys to look after themselves on their return from work until it becomes apparent that this simply isn’t working. It takes Nora some time before she acknowledges that the loss of Maurice has had a massive impact on the two boys – the poignant scenes where they sit in the classroom, learning, the very rooms where they used to meet him after he had finished teaching for the day struggling with the new order of life. A life that isn’t helped because Nora’s grief seems to have disconnected her from her children, she views them and their problems from a distance, mindful of her own mother’s interference in her life, never wondering if this apparent disinterest is just as damaging.

A touching and emotional book, rooted in a specific time with the help of Donal’s obsession with the moon landing as we see Nora learn a new way, a time when she is more involved in the present and finds her own interests including some that she would never have explored if Maurice had live.

I’d like to thank the publishers Viking for giving me a copy of this evocative and insightful novel.


A book lover who clearly has issues as obsessed with crime despite leading a respectable life

23 thoughts on “Nora Webster – Colm Tóibín

  1. Lovely review, Cleo. I like the way you’ve described the novel as a series of vignettes and glimpses into Nora’s life. As you say, Toibin leaves plenty of space to allow each reader to make their own connections.


  2. There’s definitely something to be said, I think, for those books that give you a look at a place and time as much as they do anything else. And this one sounds like a solid character development, too. Thanks for sharing, Cleo. It sounds like one of those book that creep up on you, if I may put it that way.


  3. Once of the most commented on books of the year, he certianly is the master of character portrayal. Brilliantly written, I admire how Toibin used the third person limited perspective, preventing the reader from gaining anyone else’s perspective except through dialogue, I found it so frustrating at times, I wanted to question the other characters and often I wanted to shout at Nora to speak her mind for goodness sake! Incredible how restrained she was and how clever that he made us suffer for it through his narrative choices.


  4. So glad you enjoyed it, and that you think you’ll read more Toibin. I’d recommend Brooklyn – I think you’d like the ’50s setting and the story of the girl emigrating to America…


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