"Nora Webster"

By Colm Toibin

Ireland has never enjoyed a truth that is universally acknowledged. On the contrary, people there are delighted to contest just what country they are actually even standing in. You can’t reach a consensus about society and its values where none exists.

Because we don’t agree with each other on the big issues – where we are, where we are going, who should lead us – it’s unsurprising that we should dispute the smaller stuff too.

Because of all this the great Irish novel has had a tougher time of it than the English one – coming as it always does with a flood of caveats and asterisk’s, each one intended to explain why some social or political issue taken for granted in the U.K. is still a subject of intense disagreement at home.

Few novelists have done more to elude the imprisoning claims of his home nation than Colm Toibin, whose latest novel Nora Webster is also his finest. In the book Tobin manages to chart many of the social challenges commonly faced by a spirited and smart Irish woman in roughly the middle part of the twentieth century.

Grief, an experience that unites humanity, is his subject, as is the gathering strength that must come in it wake. Masterfully, Toibin takes his time with the narrative, allowing his central character to emerge in full as the brilliant but flinty woman that she is.

Toibin’s eye – and ear – for family dynamics, for what it not said as well as what is, is astonishing. Widowed in the buttoned down late 1960s and early ‘70s, Nora has to cope with the loss of her husband as some of her less scrupulous neighbors jostle for the sudden property windfall his disappearance could represent.

Grief that is experienced is less punishing as grief that is withstood, and Toibin writes very affectingly of Nora’s inner state and the invasive if well-intentioned actions of her County Wexford community.

“There was something hungry in the way they held her hand or looked into her eyes,” Toibin writes, showing us how appalled this principled and private woman is by the unasked for emotional support offered to her without request by near strangers.

Losing your spouse, your best friend, is perhaps the toughest challenge life can throw at you, and early on Nora realizes “she was on her own now and that she had no idea how to live.”

What’s marvelous is the delicacy and poignancy with which Toibin steers her back toward herself and toward her life. Some of the women around her know what she’s made of more than she does herself. Selling her old holiday cottage, Nora is taken aback by her own determination: “What surprised her was the hardness of her resolve, how easy it seemed to turn her back on what she had loved, leave this house on the lane to the cliff for others to know, for others to come to in the summer and fill with different noises.”

As Nora comes to terms with the dimension of her loss, her daughter is becoming more politicized by the gathering conflict in the North. One of Toibin’s subjects in the novel is the limited choices available to women in that era, and there’s a gathering poignancy in watching one person come slowly into her own as the country rends itself apart.

Nora Webster is the Irish novel of the year.

Scribner, $27.

"A Girl Is a Half Formed Thing"

By Eimear McBride

When bad things happen to you before you have the words to describe them your life and your language are torn apart. This is the premise of Eimear McBride’s astonishingly powerful debut novel A Girl Is a Half Formed Thing.

Oh, we’ve seen this shocking set up before countless times. There’s a dead father, an abusive and outwardly religious mother, an uncle who is a sexual predator and a house filled with visiting clergy that fill the place with pointless prayers.

It’s the shocking howl of McBride’s language that is utterly arresting, as is the forensic sharpness of her gaze. When you are raised to insist everything is one way when your experience tells you it’s another, honesty is squeezed out and silence fills the vacuum left behind.

McBride’s character doesn’t narrate. She explodes in a torrent of repressed verbiage that has the power to pin you to your seat.

Coffee House Press, $24.