A widow’s tale of painful wonder

“Always be on the lookout for the presence of wonder.” – E.B. White.

I have always appreciated these words as a call to stay alert for evidence of beauty and mystery in the everyday-ness of life. I saw “wonder” as a mostly positive state of astonishment or awe caused by a new or unfathomable experience. Then I happened to place a bookmark bearing this quote into Nora Webster – Colm Toibin's quietly wrought novel about a widowed 40-year-old mother in rural Ireland – and remembered how the presence of wonder is often made painfully visible by loss. Nora Webster opens in 1968, just months after Nora's husband Maurice – an admired school teacher she was proud to be married to – has passed away from heart disease. Nora is weary of visitors and unsure of how to handle their well-intentioned expressions of concern – yet she knows it would also be painful to be ignored. In her small, tightly connected Catholic town, she can feel people carefully watching her, and weighing her behaviour against the social expectations of a woman in her situation.

Readers familiar with Toibin's other novels and stories will not be surprised that Nora's relationship with her two sons is central to the story. Having lost his own father at a young age, and raised by his mother in rural Ireland, it would be a fair assumption that Nora Webster contains at least a few autobiographical elements that give added truth to his observations.

Nora tries to hide her grief in front of her children – particularly her two young sons, Donal and Conor. But she cannot stop the effects of the tragedy. They are withdrawn, argue often, and one has developed a stutter (something Toibin himself had as a boy). Nora wisely observes that “their father’s death had entered them in a way they had not yet realized” – an observation that is also wise on Toibin's part, since the same sentiment could be said of Nora herself in regard to her husband's death.

In her early days of widowhood, Nora’s imagination is occupied by the idea of taking her sons to some isolated place. But she quickly acknowledges that these thoughts “include the idea that what had happened could be erased, that the burden that was on her now could be lifted, that the past could be restored and could make its way effortlessly into a painless present.” There is no escape from the confining realties of her economic situation, either. In order to make ends meet, she is forced to take an office job at a local mill – a place she happily quit 20 years ago, when she married Maurice and lived off his income.

Nora confesses to finding little comfort in faith and “old prayers” and winces when people in her community seem to talk so easily – so certainly – of God's will and grace. When a nun tells her she was sent by God to assure her he is watching over her. Nora yells in response. “He has not been watching over me! No one has been watching over me!”

Music eventually becomes Nora's place of secret solace, lifting her from the drudgery of the mundane. It had been her dream in youth to be a singer, and when she is convinced by a friend to take singing lessons with a local music teacher, she is reawakened to music's beauty and power.

Nora's singing voice is deeper now – altered by age – but her solace does not come from music's performance; simply listening to pieces by masters like Schubert and Beethoven transport her, allowing her to consider “a life she might have had if she had been born elsewhere” and “be alone with herself in a place where [Maurice] would never have followed her, even in death.”

Although Nora describes music as a place of escape, I believe that this new source of inner communication ultimately helps her recognize that she and every member of their grieving family has different ways of tending to their “damaged inner life.”

In the hands of another author, Nora's story might have veered into a place of melodramatic calamity, or worse, some idealistic journey of easy healing or sentimental self-discovery. This is not that kind of book. If she is not a victim, lost in the fog of tragedy and ill fate, then neither is she the archetypal heroic figure – the strong mother holding her children close against the societal forces of her time that would break her.

Nora Webster is plainly prosed and subtly plotted; it can aptly be described as a slow book. Yet for me, its interplay of bereavement and wonderment makes it hauntingly powerful. Toibin's beautiful portrait captures the mystical edges of identity – the ways we know and are known by others, and the bewildering unknowability that exists within us all.


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