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A Slow Simmer Of Grief And Strength In 'Nora Webster'

Colm Tóibín's writing is the literary equivalent of slow cuisine – and I mean that as a compliment. In this age of fast everything, sensational effects, and unremitting violence, he uses only the purest literary ingredients – including minutely focused character development and a keen sense of place — and simmers his quietly dramatic narratives over a low burner.

Sharply observed, nuanced family dynamics are always on Tóibín's menu — whether he's writing about an estranged family re-united by the son's AIDS in The Blackwater Lightship, a young woman torn between her family in Ireland and her new life in America in Brooklyn, or the prematurely widowed titular character in Nora Webster coping with the loss of her beloved husband.

Tóibín's tenth book of fiction is set in the early 1970s, in his hometown of Enniscorthy, in County Wexford, Ireland, a place his longtime readers have come to know well. It charts 46-year-old Nora's difficulties accepting her loss and withstanding her grief, and — less successfully — helping her children acknowledge theirs in the three years following the death of her husband, a well-loved local schoolteacher named Maurice Webster.

Like Alice McDermott's Someone, it's an extraordinary portrait of an ordinary woman in whose life death figures large. But despite Nora's brave incremental steps towards forging a new life for herself, Nora Webster paints a more mournful, lonely portrait than Someone.

Left with paltry finances, two daughters away at school and two pre-adolescent sons still at home, Nora endures her close-knit community's well-meaning but enervating sympathy calls with mixed feelings. "There was something hungry in the way they held her hand or looked into her eyes," Tóibín writes, capturing the way even a tight support network can feel hectoring and patronizing to an independent, resolutely private woman.

When Nora drives down to the family's mildewed, memory-stuffed summer beach cottage for the last time before selling it, "the bruised sky over the sea" reflects her emotional state. Tóibín writes: "[S]he sighed as, finally, she let herself feel how much she had lost, how much she would miss."

Nora, a crackerjack bookkeeper, tallies her losses repeatedly. Cheated of the education she deserved by her father's early death, she was shunted at 14 into a dead-end office job, from which she dutifully if resentfully handed over her meager wages to her impoverished mother. After 11 years, she was rescued by marriage to Maurice, which led to "a life of ease which included duty. The day belonged to her, even if others could call on her, take up her time, distract her. Never once, in the twenty-one years she had run this household, had she felt a moment of boredom or frustration." But now she must give up her freedom to return to the dull job, arranged via an intricate web of favors. She's smart enough to recognize that her situation is uncomfortably similar to that of her widowed mother, with whom she never got along.

Tóibín convincingly captures Nora's progress from the realization that "she was on her own now and that she had no idea how to live" toward finding her bearings and filling the hole left by her husband's death. These range from dyeing her hair and redecorating a room in her house to suit herself, to discovering the solace of listening to and learning to sing classical music.

Her instincts regarding her children — partying Fiona, a teacher who helps with expenses; politically engaged Aine; stammering Donal, with his passion for photography; and anxious Conor — are less assured. Determined to return to normality, she allows few openings for their mourning; guided by her determination not to follow her mother's suffocatingly over-intrusive example, she often errs on the side of detachment. Boldly frank in some respects, Nora is a woman who leaves much unsaid, repeatedly deciding that "Saying nothing was simpler, at least for the moment."

While Toíbín avoids the false comforts of a fairy tale ending in this consummately realist novel, it's thrilling to see his convincingly complex character repeatedly tap into talents and reserves of strength she didn't know she had. In its subdued way, Nora Webster is ultimately uplifting — and well worth savoring.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Heller McAlpin is a New York-based critic who reviews books regularly for NPR.org, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, The San Francisco Chronicle and other publications.