IN ONE OF HIS childhood’s grimmer chapters, the novelist Colm Tóibín and his younger brother, Niall — ages eight and four, respectively — were left to stay with their aunt while their mother tended to their hospital-bound, terminally ill father. (He died when Tóibín was 12.) During this multiple-month period, the boys’ mother made no contact with them whatsoever. Though her silence communicated a galling selfishness, its precise logic remained inscrutable, as she never discussed this interval with them upon her return. In Tóibín’s short story “One Minus One,” the narrator looks back upon a virtually identical experience — the brother here is named Cathal — from a distance of several decades:
Our mother did not get in touch with us once, not once, during this time. […] We did not know how long we were going to be left there. In the years that followed, our mother never explained her absence, and we never asked her if she had ever wondered how we were, or how we felt, during those months.
This should be nothing, because it resembled nothing, just as one minus one resembles zero. […] It feels as though Cathal and I had spent that time in the shadow world, as though we had been quietly lowered into the dark, everything familiar missing, and nothing we did or said could change this. […] We were emptied of everything, and in the vacuum came something like silence — almost no sound at all, just some sad echoes and dim feelings.
The acute disorientation, the budding of a pitiably premature self-reliance: these are the insoluble hallmarks of the abandonment described here and elsewhere in Tóibín’s fiction. One of contemporary literature’s great chroniclers of maternity and its discontents, Tóibín takes just such a mother as the subject of his new novel, Nora Webster.
Novelists are typically quick to resist critical conflations of their work with their lived experience, and understandably so: one is never reducible to the other. And yet in Tóibín’s case, attention to the seepage between his novels and his biography leads less to a prurient and easy exegetical method, than to an intertextual one. One of the central pleasures of his novel The Master, which dramatizes the life of Henry James, is watching Tóibín render (often speculatively) the source material — people, objects, and settings, usually some constellation thereof — for James’s fiction. With his positively Jamesian eye for tableau, Tóibín encouraged the reader to delight not only in the narrative’s imagery, but also in the creation myths that the imagery implied. James described his own fiction being born of a “germ,” a “precious particle” of observation that, through assiduous cultivation, could be given final form. As a sort of index of “germs,” The Master strikes an elegant balance: its premise excuses a fascination with fiction’s biographical origins, while its very status as a work of fiction acknowledges biography’s limited ability to illuminate any author’s creative life.
In Nora Webster, Tóibín returns again to the place of his upbringing, County Wexford, Ireland, which has provided a rich setting for his earlier novels The Heather Blazing, The Blackwater Lightship, and Brooklyn. Wexford plays the perfect foil to the eponymous Nora’s every mood: by turns isolated and expansive, dreary and bright, the landscape shuttles readily between the registers of solitude and society. In the weeks and months following the death of her beloved husband, Nora is hopelessly preoccupied with her grief and its seeming intractability; regular visits from neighbors, who drop by unannounced wearing obsequiously grave expressions, only clarify her desire for privacy. Regarding these displays of concern as incorrigibly mettlesome, she grieves in inarticulate silence, which her two boys — the older Donal and the younger Conor, who are roughly the ages Tóibín and his brother were at the time of their father’s passing — also inhabit, though there is no consolation for them there.
Donal, who shares Tóibín’s childhood stammer, dislikes school and demonstrates an emerging interest in photography; Conor, blessed and cursed with an excellent memory, is a diligent student, and he is extremely sensitive to proximate unease. The boys brood within the still, airless house, at once attuned to any emotional signal therein and seemingly unable to fashion such signals into a coherent understanding of their new fatherless reality. Nora and Maurice’s two daughters, Fiona and Aine, are older than Donal and Conor — Fiona is in Dublin, training to be a teacher, while Aine attends boarding school in nearby Bunclody — and their relative independence at the time of their father’s death has thus spared them Donal and Conor’s confusion.
Like the mother in “One Minus One” and Tóibín’s mother before her, Nora leaves the boys alone with a relative prior to her husband’s death. Years later, when Donal awakens screaming from a nightmare, Nora infers that he experienced some trauma during the months that her Aunt Josie was caring for him. Nora then asks Josie what transpired during this time, to which Josie responds,
It was silent. And they thought you might come and you never did. Sometimes even if a car began to make its way up the lane, or pulled in on the road, the two of them would stop what they were doing and sit up. And then time went by. I don’t know what you were thinking of leaving them here all that time and never once coming to see them.
This synopsis of the boys’ time away from Nora is the most detailed one the reader receives. Absent is the boys’ perspective, and with it all traces of figuration. Josie’s remarks elicit from Nora no self-recriminations, no further inquiries — only equivocations. The narrative, which cleaves to Nora’s consciousness with almost suffocating fidelity, depicts only as much of the boys’ inner lives as she herself can intuit, which is, unsurprisingly, not much: “It was strange, she thought, that she had never before put a single thought into whether they were happy or not, or tried to guess what they were thinking.”
Though the novel spans the three turbulent years leading up to Bloody Sunday in 1972, County Wexford’s relatively provincial nature and its distance from Northern Ireland insulate it from the Troubles, which intrude in news broadcasts, in terse dispatches from the margins. While Nora is disturbed by the violence, she does not consider it deeply — her adjustments to the demands of widowhood are primary. Cultural shifts take place without Nora’s proper notice: she barely appreciates the flarings of nationalist sentiment, of regional and religious solidarities that are reshaping the world around her. Only when a child of hers appears on The Late Late Show to justify a sit-in does Nora understand the potential ramifications of the upheaval. Rather, the Troubles are like an environmental condition throughout the text, encroaching and receding, rumbling remotely and climaxing in the briefest of eruptions.
The narrative’s episodic structure incorporates many bathetic scenes of Nora’s unfounded worries, of actions that, like fallow storm clouds, augur consequences without ever producing them. In this way, Nora Webster resembles Evan S. Connell’s highly autobiographical diptych, Mr. Bridge and Mrs. Bridge. Like the Bridge novels, Nora Webster hops between discrete moments, rendered in a spare, even prose that brings descriptions of emotion a clinical authority.
The writing in Nora Webster is ruthlessly spare, empty of metaphorical language; it aspires to a Platonic clarity, as though it wished to simply disappear, or turn to glass. Though this style is very much Tóibín’s signature, its effect here is dramatically different than in his other novels. The sentences in Brooklyn, for instance, capture the restless, forward-looking Eilis Lacey, an Enniscorthy native who immigrates to New York. Eilis is, because of her youth, protean; her convictions and expectations are constantly in flux. Tóibín brings a patience and depth to Eilis’s thoughts, capturing her most ineffable sensations with a banal accuracy, thereby offsetting the various instabilities Eilis negotiates throughout the book. In Nora Webster, however, the prose is in emotional lockstep with Nora, who is so certain that her life after Maurice will be static, instead of in counterpoint to her, as it is with Eilis. If the narration of Brooklyn is projective, capturing all of Eilis’s fleeting fantasies and concerns, then Nora Webster’s is recursive, tracking the predictable stops Nora’s mind makes as it travels the circuit of its own loneliness.
At its best, this astringency vividly conveys Nora’s thought processes, and, at its worst, it yields leaden, oversimplified expositions, as in this consideration of her sons: “In these months, she realized, something had changed in the clear, easy connection between her and them, and perhaps, for them, between each other. She felt that she would never be sure about them again.” Because Tóibín generally resists such lifelessly tidy summations, it is a surprise to encounter them at all. The book’s most bracing passages are those that describe Nora’s burgeoning love of music. When Nora decides to take voice lessons with an eccentric former nun, she develops a new confidence and an ability to refigure, if only imaginatively, her place in the world. Fantasizing that she is the very cellist to whose record she is listening, Nora “wondered if she was alone in having nothing in between the dullness of her own days and the sheer brilliance of this imagined life.”
Tóibín’s most declarative sentences always arrive on the heels of precise, sensual description, as gemlike compressions of observation and emotion. Connell’s project in the Bridge novels was, in a certain sense, to use comparably insightful compressions as a tool with which to envisage his father, a cold man whose emotional world resisted imagination. Tóibín has attained something similar here. Whereas the story of maternal abandonment that he tells in “One Minus One” captures a victim’s response to inadvertent cruelty, Nora Webster seeks to somehow make such cruelty intelligible, to provide the testament of a ghost.