Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín

Hardcover, 320 pages
Publisher: Viking (October 2014)
Language: English
Selected by Mary Mount

“Colm Tóibín is, quite simply, one of the greatest writers in the English language and this, his most recent novel, conveys the unmooring nature of grief in a way that stays with you for days afterwards.” —Mary Mount

Set in 1960s Enniscorthy, southeast Ireland, Nora Webster is the story of the titular character’s attempts to rebuild her life and those of her four children after the premature death of her husband. Nora is one of Tóibín’s by now almost archetypal characters: thoughtful, marginalised and caught in a trap of circumstance. Tóibín, who was born in Enniscorthy, has written several novels of deceptively simple prose that deal with inner turmoil and quietly unfolding catharsis. Nora Webster is his eighth.

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CHAPTER ONE

“You must be fed up of them. Will they never stop coming?” Tom O’Connor, her neighbour, stood at his front door and looked at her, waiting for a response.

“I know,” she said.

“Just don’t answer the door. That’s what I’d do.”

Nora closed the garden gate.

“They mean well. People mean well,” she said.

“Night after night,” he said. “I don’t know how you put up with it.”

She wondered if she could get back into the house without having to answer him again. He was using a new tone with her, a tone he would never have tried before. He was speaking as though he had some authority over her.

“People mean well,” she said again, but saying it this time made her feel sad, made her bite her lip to keep the tears back. When she caught Tom O’Connor’s eye, she knew that she must have appeared put down, defeated. She went into the house.

That night a knock came at almost eight o’clock. There was a fire lighting in the back room and the two boys were doing their homework at the table.

“You answer it,” Donal said to Conor.

“No, you do.”

“One of you answer it,” she said.

Conor, the younger one, went out to the hall. She could hear a voice when he opened the door, a woman’s voice, but not one that she recognised. Conor ushered the visitor into the front room.

“It’s the little woman who lives in Court Street,” he whispered to her when he came into the back room.

“Which little woman?” she asked.

“I don’t know.”

May Lacey shook her head sadly when Nora came into the front room.

“Nora, I waited until now. I can’t tell you how sorry I am about Maurice.”

She reached out and held Nora’s hand.

“And he was so young. I knew him when he was a little boy. We knew them all in Friary Street1.”

“Take off your coat and come into the back room,” Nora said. “The boys are doing their exercise, but they can
move in here and turn on the electric fire. They’ll be going to bed soon anyway.”

May Lacey, wisps of thin grey hair appearing from under her hat, her scarf still around her neck, sat opposite Nora in the back room and began to talk. After a while, the boys went upstairs; Conor, when Nora called him, was too shy to come down and say goodnight, but soon Donal came and sat in the room with them, carefully studying May Lacey, saying nothing.

It was clear now that no one else would call. Nora was relieved that she would not have to entertain people who did not know each other, or people who did not like each other.

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[1] The population of Enniscorthy, according to the 1966 census, was 6,279, which made it one of the larger towns in Ireland at the time. Friary and Court Streets, in the centre of town, are adjacent. 

  • Nora Webster