Amongst women: Biographical echoes from Colm Tóibín

by John Boland

It is the late 1960s in Wexford  . . .  and Nora Webster is trying to rebuild her life after the death of her husband.

In his short memoir A Guest at the Feast, published in 2011 as a Penguin ebook, Colm Tóibín writes of his mother as someone who had been “hungry all her life” for learning and who in her widowhood “devoured books”. And in his arresting new novel, the central character is also widowed and also hungry for learning, though the passion she develops is for music rather than literature.

There are other correspondences, too. The author’s mother, Brid, was married to a teacher who died when his wife was in her 40s, and Nora Webster is much the same age when her teacher husband passes away. And the location for both of these occurrences is the Enniscorthy of the late 1960s.

The novel’s biographical echoes don’t end there. Nora’s teenage son Donal develops a stammer, just as Tóibín did during his own schooldays, while the memoir’s description of Tóibín’s mother as one of those “Catholic women in a provincial town who desperately sought a window onto the wider world” and as “curious and intelligent and demanding, ready to be moved and changed” could equally apply to Nora.

Then there’s the memoir’s account of how Mrs Tóibín “got into a rage” when her son was being blocked from entry to his school’s scholarship class and of how she won the day in a furious confrontation with the cleric in charge of the class — a scene that’s replicated in the novel when Donal is temporarily demoted to the B-class.

This is not to suggest that Nora Webster is anything but a work of fiction, merely that its factual underpinnings, some of which had been used in earlier Tóibín novels, are especially striking here. But what’s most striking — and daring — about the new book is its determination to make drama out of the seemingly uneventful.

The title of Benedict Kiely’s final novel, published in 1985, was Nothing Happens in Carmincross, even though something dreadful does indeed happen in that fictional border town towards the end of the book. But Tóibín might reasonably have called his novel Nothing Happens in Enniscorthy, because nothing much — in conventional novelistic terms, anyway — does happen in it. Except life, of course, which has to be continued even in the wake of personal catastrophes, the catastrophe here being the death in middle age of Nora’s husband Maurice, which occurs just before the book begins and which forces Nora into making choices about how she’s going to live.

One of these choices — a return to the office work she’d given up when she got married — isn’t really a choice at all, being determined by the fact that she has two young sons to support at home, a daughter at boarding school in Bunclody and another daughter training to be a teacher in Dublin.

The office is owned by the wealthy Gibney family and run by a bitter and angry, indeed almost demented, woman with whom Nora had fallen out decades earlier, and Nora’s return there is the occasion for small-town condescension on the part of the snobbish Gibneys and undisguised resentment on the part of her old nemesis — a resentment that she meets with a long-suppressed degree of steeliness.

Her other choices, though, prove more fruitful. Faced with the realisation that “she was on her own now and that she had no idea how to live”, she gradually makes herself open to new experiences — accompanying a friend to a pub quiz night and joining a gramophone society.

This latter proves crucial. When, in a local shop, she first hears Dvorak’s Hymn to the Moon, she feels “a sadness that she had lived her life until now without having heard this”, and she’s even more moved by a recording of Beethoven’s Archduke Trio loaned to her by a local couple from the gramophone society. She’s entranced, too, by the record sleeve’s photograph of the young woman cellist (presumably Jacqueline du Pré, who recorded the trio with Daniel Barenboim and Pinchas Zukerman) and she fantasises being such a thrilling and admired musician herself.

Armed now with more confidence, she also takes singing lessons with an eccentric elderly woman who had once been a nun, and though she constantly frets about her two sons, especially the sensitive and artistic Donal, she comes to learn that there’s more to life than the socially defined role of lonely widow.

In terms of storyline, that’s about it, but in this third successive Tóibín novel viewed  from the perspective of a woman, the drama is in the details. There may be less of incident here, and a lot less of plot, than in the 2009 bestseller Brooklyn, whose central character, Eilis (played in John Crowley’s forthcoming movie version by Saoirse Ronan) is referenced here as a neighbour’s emigrant daughter. And Nora is certainly not the mythologised mother of Jesus who recounts the 2012 novella, The Testament of Mary.

Yet in her own quietly insistent way she becomes a remarkable, and remarkably interesting, person — much, it seems, like Colm Tóibín’s own mother, who’s described in his affecting memoir as enacting “a lifelong imitation of an ordinary woman”. Indeed, as this novel movingly proposes, there are no ordinary women and no ordinary lives.

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