In Levels of Life, Julian Barnes's searching account of the death of his wife and the enduring ache of bereavement, the reader is warned that "every love story is a potential grief story".
Nora Webster, the eponymous heroine of Colm Tóibín's latest book [Amazon.com; Amazon.co.uk], is quickly and cruelly made aware of this when her husband Maurice dies. Like Barnes's memoir which tracked "the lost-ness of the griefstruck", Tóibín's novel charts the blind flailing, stumbling and self-reclusiveness of the loved one left behind. Gradually, however, Maurice's widow finds the strength and determination to pick herself up and soldier on, and the reader gladly follows her emotional journey towards the pinprick of light at the end of the tunnel.
The events of the novel play out in a small Irish town in the late 1960s. Tóibín wastes little time in portraying his setting as a stifling community where everyone knows everyone else’s affairs. Nora is plagued by neighbours who heap tea and sympathy on her while sniffing for gossip. But nosy busybodies only temporarily impinge upon her mourning; intruding far longer and cutting much deeper is an onslaught of hard practicalities, not least caring for four children, particularly her young boys Conor and Donal. Much to the family’s disappointment, Nora sells their holiday home and takes on a full-time job to make ends meet. Great changes stem from blunt acceptance: “Her years of freedom had come to an end; it was as simple as that.”
For the bulk of the book, Tóibín shows Nora first bowed by grief then negotiating it. Genuine well-wishers coax her out of her shell and back into society. Her friend Phyllis takes her to a pub quiz and her Aunt Josie treats her to her first holiday abroad.
When Nora joins a trade union and answers back to hard taskmistress Francie Kavanagh at work, we see her toughening up; and when Conor’s teacher moves him down a class for no apparent reason and his mother retaliates by going on a one-woman crusade for justice, we witness the fury and the feistiness of a widow scorned. An object of pity becomes a force to be reckoned with.
Nora learns to protest but she also finds her voice, quite literally, through song. After singing lessons with a nun she makes a couple of disastrous public performances but her new-found resilience and love of music enable her to rise above her critics. What’s more, she realises this hobby heralds a breakthrough stage in the bereavement process: “It was not merely that Maurice had no ear for music, and that music was something they had never shared. It was the intensity of her time here; she was alone with herself in a place where he would never have followed her, even in death.”
Despite its weighty theme and its protagonist's inner struggles, Nora Webster starts out as a relatively gentle read, light on drama and incident. Early chapters are given over to nondescript caravan holidays, dips in the sea, and a day-trip to the bright lights and big smoke of Dublin, where Nora's sons are thrilled by trains, comics and escalators. But as the narrative unfolds we come upon pockets of tension, from the distant rumble of rioting in Derry and Belfast to Nora's relapses – her nadir being a conversation while heavily medicated and sleep-deprived with the ghost of her husband.
This brief, poignant scene speaks volumes about Nora’s poor mental state. Tóibín judiciously resists resurrecting Maurice again, either in the form of hallucinated visions in the present or restaged memories from the past, and thus avoids any descent into cloying sentimentality. The novel’s language is wonderfully controlled: spare and lucid yet muscular enough to convey both numbness and true depth of feeling; and as plaintive and beautiful as Nora’s arias. The literature of grief brims with vivid imagery, whether Hamlet’s “suits of woe” or D H Lawrence’s odour of chrysanthemums, but throughout his novel Tóibín plays it straight, delivering and convincing with trick-free prose.
In Tóibín's 2009-novel Brooklyn, his female lead Eilis Lacey must also cope with the death of a family member. Nora Webster, however, offers a fuller, more comprehensive picture of one woman's attempt to rebuild her life after tragedy. It is only towards the end, three years after her husband's death, that Nora can bring herself to throw away his clothes and burn his old letters.
Tóibín’s rich, affecting and occasionally powerful novel leaves us with a lasting impression of a family far from healed but also far from broken, coming to terms with their loss and feeling better equipped to navigate a “world filled with absences”.
Malcolm Forbes is a regular contributor to The Review.
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