Likely Stories: Nora Webster, by Colm Tóibín

Aug 10, 2017

Another fine novel by Colm Tóibín about a woman who suddenly loses her husband.


I’m Jim McKeown, welcome to Likely Stories, a weekly review of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and biographies.

Colm Tóibín has been a favorite of mine since the inception of Likely Stories in the fall of 2009.  He was born May 30, 1955.  He is an Irish novelist, short story writer, essayist, playwright, journalist, critic, and poet.  He has won dozens of awards—far too many to list here.  He is currently a professor of the Humanities at Columbia University in New York, and he is a professor of creative writing at the University of Manchester.  In 2017, he was appointed Chancellor of Liverpool University.  Colm has written 10 novels along with scads of non-fiction (Wikipedia).  Nora Webster is his ninth novel.  He has a dream career for any aspiring creative writer.  Ever since I immersed myself in the works of James Joyce, I have developed a fascination for Irish writers.  Colm Tóibín is at the undisputed head of that list.

Nora Webster is the story of a woman with four children—two young ladies away at school, Fiona and Aine, and two boys still in high school, Conor and Donal.  As the story opens, Nora has been widowed in her early 40s.  Maurice was the love of her life, and despite this devastating event, she organizes her finances to take care of her children through college.  At first, lots of her neighbors come bearing food and offering help to the point she becomes reclusive.  Tóibín writes, “Once more she noted the hectoring tone, as though she were a child, unable to make proper decisions.  She had tried since the funeral to ignore this tone, or tolerate it.  She tried to understand that it was shorthand for kindness” (12). 

One day, she gets in the car and drives to a seaside vacation village to visit a house she and Maurice owned.  Everyone tells Nora she should not make any rash decisions.  She enters the house and realizes it has no value to her without Maurice.  On a spur of the moment, she sells it to a friend, who gives her the fair market price.  No one takes advantage of her.  Tóibín writes, “‘Well, there are a lot of people who are very fond of you” (13).  The children are disappointed, but they accept Nora’s decision.

Nora pays a visit to Fiona at school, and she walks her to the train.  Colm writes, “As they looked at one another, Nora felt Fiona was hostile, and forced herself to remember how upset she must be, and how lonely she might be, too.  She smiled as she said that they would have to go and in return Fiona smiled at her and the boys.  As soon as Nora walked away, however, she felt helpless and regretted not having said something kind or special, or consoling to Fiona before they left her; maybe even something as simple as asking her when she was coming down next, or emphasizing how much they looked forward to seeing her soon.  She wished she had a phone in the house so she could keep in more regular touch with her.  She thought that she might write Fiona a note in the morning thanking her for coming to meet them” (29). 

Colm Tóibín’s Nora Webster is the story of a wise, warm, empathetic, strong woman, who, when forced to take the reins of the family, does so with determination.  This story can be enjoyed by all ages.  5 stars

Likely Stories is a production of KWBU.  I’m Jim McKeown.  Join me again next time for Likely Stories and Happy reading!