Nora Webster has lost her husband of 21 years. Maurice had been a beloved school teacher in a small Irish village. She had stayed at his side watching him die, their children sent off with relatives for four months. The Catholic doctors withheld the morphine that would have eased his pain, for it would also have caused his death. Now she must face life alone without the love of her life.
Intelligent, independent, and strong willed, Nora is disconnected to her family and neighbors. Her sisters talk behind her back of how difficult she was before marriage. Her children confide to her sisters and aunt, and Nora hears second hand of their inner life. After months of being an object of pity Nora can barely stand to let her well meaning neighbors in the house.
Nora has an inner strength and one admires how she stands up for herself. She is offered work by her employer before marriage. Her nemesis from her teen years is her manager and makes her life miserable, and her co-worker, the boss's daughter, is vacuous and self-absorbed. When the workers gather to unionize she joins them, alienating the boss and his family.
Her children grieve in isolation. Nora alone understands the myth of children's resilience, remembering how she never recovered from the loss of her parents. The Troubles in Northern Ireland dominates the news and draws her eldest daughter into Irish protest groups. The younger daughter is away at school, and her eldest son become obsessed with photography and the Space Race. Her youngest son developed a stutter during his four months apart and is a source of concern for Nora.
Nora's decisions make her stand out in the village. She colors her hair, buys new clothes, redecorates. People invite her to a gramophone society, take her on as a singing student. Late in life she learns the confidence that comes from making decisions for oneself.
The book has a quietness about it, a solemnity. The narrative is straight forward, even in mystical scenes when Nora senses Maurice's presence. There is a sense of majesty, that this particular life illuminates universal experiences.
Nora's grief recall to mind memories of my own. When my mother had terminal cancer she asked for morphine even when the nurse warned her she would not wake up. She did not want any more pain, a lifetime of Psoriatic arthritis had been pain enough. I saw my dad flounder after her death before building a new life without her. He had to make decisions about things that Mom had always handled. When my father was dying I was at the hospital every day for two months. Yes, death is the only universal experience. We don't recall our birth, we don't all procreate, but we all lose loved ones.
This is not a depressing book. It is an intimate tale of how one woman grieves and rebuilds. Her new life offers Nora something she never had before: the opportunity for self discovery, to test her wings, to become something more. Her life is not perfect, for this is a novel of realism; instead she achieves something better: a growth into a wholeness she had never before enjoyed.
Nora will quietly wait in the back of your mind long after you have finished the novel.
Nora Webster by Colm Toibin
Publication date: October 7, 2014