In 2009 Colm Toibin’s novel Brooklyn saw the award winning Irish author capture a much wider international following. In his new novel Nora Webster, Toibin returns to the village of Enniscorthy, Co. Wexford 20 years later, just as The Troubles are starting up in the North and Nora, a mother of four, has just become a widow. CAHIR O’DOHERTY talks to the author about his heroine’s deeply affecting journey through grief toward life again.
With Nora Webster, Colm Toibin’s highly anticipated follow up to his award winning 2009 novel Brooklyn, he has managed to write two back-to-back classics.
In the new book Toibin returns to the village of Enniscorthy, but this time 20 years later as The Troubles are flaring in the North and Nora, a mother of four, has just become a widow.
“I started writing Nora Webster in 2000 and I’ve been writing about it and adding to it since then,” Toibin tells the Irish Voice. “I’ve not had a book like that before, that took that long. I just wanted to be really sure about it. I wrote other books in the meantime but I always had this one on the go.”
The wait has been worth it. Toibin’s masterful control of the details of Nora’s life, what is revealed and concealed as she grapples with her grief over her loss and with the small Irish community that often treats her like she’s radioactive or a child, is nothing short of astonishing.
There are so many remarkable moments in it. Toward the middle of the book Nora, having just had a showdown with the bullying woman at work who daily lords it over her, takes a drive to the nearby beach on a misty day. There, in the fog, she finds herself in a place that looks like it’s halfway between this world and the next.
“I wrote a catalogue for the Scottish artist Callum Innes, an abstract painter. From out of his work I got an idea of a sort of landscape where there was so much mist. Where lines had sort of dissolved, and that was a sort of special place in the book,” says Toibin.
“A place where Nora would find something that would almost be spiritual or religious or something. She meets a nun there who tells her some hard truths. Out of looking at Innes’ work I got that chapter.”
The Joyceean note is inescapable and Toibin’s subtlety is considerable. Every moment in the book is carefully judged to convey Nora’s inner and outer state.
“I know that beach in Wexford, there is a convent along the beach – I’m not making that part up – it’s the St. John of God Convent at Ballyvaloo. You would often would see a nun out walking, especially when I was a kid, wearing full habit on the beach. It was really an extraordinary sight.”
Nora Webster Toibin needed that halfway moment Toibin suggests, because Maurice (Nora’s husband, who has just passed on as the book opens) is not in the story until near the end and he needed to make his absence palpable. This scene makes it more complete.
“A poem lends itself more toward lament. With a novel, because you’re dealing more with time, you can write over a few years. Grief comes and goes, it ebbs and flows; it can’t be controlled or predicted. That idea of having all these characters unmoored as it were by Nora’s grief interested me.”
The local women in the book are so vividly drawn that their confrontations with each other are almost theatrical in their immediacy.
“I was sort of interested in taking an idea out of Hamlet,” Toibin explains. “If you look at Hamlet you also have Horatio, Laertes and Fortinbras. You have all these young men and Hamlet’s merely one of them.
“With this book I wanted many many images of women to operate as ways of reminding Nora what she once had, what she doesn’t have now.”
Every day one young woman in the office talks on and on about romance on the telephone in front of Nora, who has lost all romance. Meanwhile, her daughter is beginning to have boyfriends. Her friend is married and has money. One of her sisters is getting married; the other is already married and has more money. Everyone has more of something than Nora does, and she moves between them.
“They all feel that they can give her advice or look after her, but what often ends up happening is that they end up showing off to her in some way. They are seeking her approval, and she has a dry way of watching them all,” Toibin says.
It turns out that all the women in the book are very sensitive to her scrutiny. In fact it emerges that they often make secret pacts to get around her rather than confront her outright, since she’s often considered forbidding or caustic or disapproving in some way.
It may also be their way at getting back at her. The novel is filled with things not said, not present or not understood. And the reader knows more than Nora does at times.
“You think, ‘Oh my God, you’re not going to do what I think you’re going to do,’ and of course she goes ahead and does it. She’s operating almost with a blindfold on,” Toibin says.
Much of the inspiration for the book comes straight from Tobin’s own memory, which may help to explain some of its remarkable power.
“I was brought up in a house full of women where that idea of if you buy a sheepskin coat, the first time you wear it out someone will actually ask you if it’s right to have a three quarter length sheepskin coat? Is that a good thing?” he laughs. “All of that comes from my own memory.”
The Ireland of the period – roughly 1967 or 1968 – dovetails with his own adolescence. “I don’t think you can research that if you haven’t lived through it. If you research it you get some detail but you wouldn’t get the whole business of it, you know?”
One of the most striking things about Nora’s friends and relations is how much they insert themselves into her life, usually without invitation.
“I think there are moments when (the scrutiny Nora is under in the town) it becomes very protective. Yes, she’s being watched all the time but she’s also being really protected,” Toibin says.
People really do care about her and are making sure she’s okay, and at other times it’s also a prison. “There are times when it’s clear she’s not alone in this place. She’s not going to be left alone. And that has a nourishing aspect as well as a punishing aspect.”
Actress Fiona Shaw, who appeared in Toibin’s The Testament of Mary on Broadway in 2013, narrates the audio book, to his delight.
“It’s really, really worth hearing,” he says enthusiastically. “When she gets to perform characters like the young Elizabeth in the office when she’s on the phone to her boyfriend, she just goes to town. She’s really brilliant.”
Meanwhile Brooklyn, the new film of his 2009 novel is forthcoming and will star Saoirse Ronan and Domhnall Gleeson. Toibin has already seen the film (scheduled to open in 2015) and says he’s delighted with it.
“It’s very emotional. What Nick Hornby (screenwriter) and John Crowley (director) have done is stripped away quite a lot and told the essential story of Eilis Lacey’s journey to America and the dilemma she’s then in. I found it tremendously emotional partly because the casting is so brilliant.”
Emory Cohen plays Tony as a figure of immense boyish charm, always trying to seduce Eilis with his smile or do anything to make her laugh, Tobin says.
“He’s so brilliantly needy; the love scenes between them are tremendous. But when she meets Jim Farrell, played by Domhnall Gleeson, he plays it the opposite way. He’s one of those Irish guys we all know – completely stable, everything he says he means, who is a bit of a loner, is incredibly kind, really decent.
“He won’t make her laugh for no reason, he’s a bit sad, he really wants her. She realizes what this means in Ireland, having a boyfriend like that who is so decent and faithful. Tony’s unstable and charming, tremendous fun – the other guy plays it with enormous depth. She wants both of them really badly, but she can’t have both.”
Ronan plays the role with such tremendous emotional integrity, says Toibin.
“I was worried that it wouldn’t translate but I saw it with a group of twentysomethings from my publishers in London and they were all in tears at the end. Anyone who has ever left home – I think they will need to go to Walmart and buy a winter supply of tissues,” he says with a smile.