- Colm Tóibín’s Nora Webster:Peacemaking and Intertextual Redemption
Colm Tóibín’s 2014 novel Nora Webster continues a twenty-five-year pattern in the author’s oeuvre in which he represents the familial impact of traumatic loss, often by drawing on his own personal history. Focusing on a widow and mother as she navigates parenthood and life alone, Nora Webster also extends Tóibín’s engagement with themes of small-town interference, pained silences, dysfunctional communication, emotionally neglected children, and disconnected or selfish mothers. Embedded in Tóibín’s customary Enniscorthy setting, the characters circulate in the familiar (if claustrophobic) fictional milieu of Tóibín’s other novels. In these ways, Nora Webster adheres to an already well-established pattern.
Despite these continuities, however, Nora Webster marks an evolution from Tóibín’s earlier representations of traumatic loss. The 2014 novel focuses not on the impact of such neglectful parenting on adult children, but rather, on the grieving perspective of the failing parent. Tóibín creates a remarkably sympathetic portrait of a mother figure—a figure that in his other Irish texts is painfully limited or emotionally stunted. By stressing what the central character has lacked through her own neglect; through the restrictions imposed by her town and by widowhood; through her own failure of empathy; or through the loss of her husband—and by doing so consistently from her perspective—Nora Webster humanizes the figure of the flawed mother more than any of the author’s previous works.
The novel, in fact, serves as a kind of answer to Tóibín’s earlier Irish texts. By constructing Nora Webster as a text in dialogue with prior novels—and his previous novels have already been notably self-referential—Tóibín makes clear that this novel does not merely recreate, but also responds to, these familiar thematic issues. To appreciate fully the evolution and nature of the main character, Nora Webster must be read within the context of Tóibín’s wider Irish oeuvre. Nora Webster portrays a character coming to terms with her grief; at the same time, it enacts a type of authorial peacemaking with the figure of the mother.
Nora Webster follows the experiences of a mother and widow in Enniscorthy [End Page 39] during the late 1960s or early 1970s, as she attempts to navigate life as a newly single parent after the sudden, early demise of her husband, Maurice. Trying to survive fiscally given her altered circumstances; to navigate small-town politics and wider familial dynamics; and to relate to and support her children even as she struggles with her own disorientation, grief, and loss, Nora presents a portrait of endurance as well as explorations of psychological limitation, courage, and the boundaries of grief. In many ways, the novel is consistent with Tóibín’s prior novels and short stories set in Enniscorthy. It redeploys familiar elements: children abandoned at a relative’s house during their father’s illness and death; a remote and emotionally inaccessibly mother; and the emotional scarring of children from these experiences. This foundation reflects Tóibín’s own history, just as his authorial practice reifies his stated belief that “you are always working out of some deep business of self.”1
Nora Webster itself foregrounds its thematic consistencies with the earlier fiction and urges the reader to keep them in mind.2 For example, Nora is painfully aware of the watchful eye of her community, which she allows to influence the manner and modes of her grief. As she endures a parade of mourners in the months and weeks following Maurice’s death, Nora is conscious of the almost voyeuristic intrusion their social calls represent: “Looking into the fire, Nora tried to think back, wondering if May Lacey had ever been in this house before. She thought not. She had known her all her life, like so many in the town, to greet and exchange pleasantries with, or to stop and talk to if there was news.”3 [End Page 40] Nora’s sense of community resonates with others’ in Tóibín’s...