"Lonely House, Fetherd". Photo: Anna & Michal/Flickr
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Sweet nothings: Colm Tóibín’s study of domestic grief

Nora Webster is the tale of a woman inside a house. It’s a small house in a small town in Ireland, in the late 1960s and Nora, recently widowed, lives here with her two teenage sons and her daughters who, like the house, are semi-detached.

Nora Webster 
Colm Tóibín
Viking, 320pp, £18.99

Colm Tóibín’s The Master (2004) might be described as the story of a man inside a house. The man is Henry James and the house Lamb House in Rye, but what gives the novel its near-supernatural force is its depiction of a world of interiors, domestic and otherwise.

Nora Webster returns to similar terrain: it is the tale of a woman inside a house. It’s a small house in a small town in Wexford, Ireland, in the late 1960s and Nora, recently widowed, lives here with her two teenage sons and her slightly older daughters who, like the house, are semi-detached. Mired in their separate grief, Nora and her sons watch George Cukor’s wartime film Gaslight on the television. Conor, the younger of the boys, asks what it is about. “It’s about a woman inside a house,” Nora replies. Blank response. “You’d have to see it to know how good it is,” she adds.

By the second ad break, the boys do know how good it is. “They had never seen a film like this and it hit something in them that was raw and open, as though they were in a house with a woman who, despite her best efforts, was jittery and worried too, who kept silent about everything that was on her mind.” Which, of course, they are. Nora Webster is every bit as “oddly alone” and “oddly estranged” as the persecuted Ingrid Bergman, her “sense of a damaged inner life” every bit as apparent. As the gaslight flickers in the film, the television flickers in the dark of the room once inhabited by Nora’s husband, Maurice, and in which now only memories are housed. Her sons feel weird and sink further into silence. Their mother is leading a posthumous existence.

Of the many occasions when Nora confronts the “nothing” – a word Tóibín repeats – that is her new life, this one is the best. There is no struggle for expression, because there is nothing to express, and Tóibín’s prose is plain, understated, flatlining. Barthes described Camus’s The Outsider as “white writing”, by which he meant “a style of absence that is almost an ideal absence of style”, and the same might be said of Nora Webster. There is an absence of style, but also of plot.

The narrative is composed of scenes, as in a film, or the movements of a symphony. Nora has a bad hair-dye that makes it look like she’s wearing a wig; she returns, after 23 years, to work for the same company; she joins a trade union and feels empowered but ashamed; she visits her sisters; she goes to Spain with an aunt who snores all night; she sings badly in a pub; she drinks gin and tonic while listening to recordings of German song cycles with the local doctor and his wife.

Every encounter has its own agony. With Maurice’s death, the border between the Webster house and the town of Enniscorthy dissolves and there isn’t a moment in the day when Nora is not making tea for a well-meaning neighbour. Privacy is a thing of the past: mourning is open season. One visitor, May Lacey, chats away about her daughter, Eily, who emigrated to Brooklyn in the 1950s. We know about Eilis Lacey already – she is the subject of Tóibín’s 2009 novel, Brooklyn – and she serves here as a foil to Nora Webster, who so far has never been further than Wales. Nora’s world was Maurice and his world was the school in which he taught and Fianna Fáil.

Before Maurice’s death, who was Nora Webster? All we know is that in those days she had an exterior life. We get only flashes of Nora’s backstory because Tóibín is not interested in giving us a before-and-after. It is the moment of transition he wants to capture, the hinge between one state and another. Local people respect Nora without much liking her; Maurice was liked a lot and Nora was his wife. Chilly and clever with a serrated edge, Nora is unreadable in her present form: “When she asked herself what she was interested in, she had to conclude that she was interested in nothing at all.”

If Tóibín leaves us without a clear picture of his heroine, it is because she is not yet clear to herself – the widow Webster is still a work in progress. She finds intimacy difficult, has few friends, is unable to reach out to her sons, one of whom developed a stammer when his father was dying. Words fail the family in their present state and it is through music that Nora finds a language.

Maurice had not been musical and in her singing lessons Nora is, at last, “alone with herself . . . in a place where he would never have followed her, even in death”. She buys a record player and listens to Beet­hoven when no one is in. Music becomes her “dream life”.

Had Nora been born elsewhere, she might have played the cello and been photographed on the cover of an LP as an “eager and talented” young woman, “in full possession of her world, with men beside her who depended on her to come in with her deeper, darker sound”. There is “nothing” between “the dullness of her own days” and the brilliance of this imagined life and this “nothing” is what Tóibín catches to perfection in these pages. 

Frances Wilson’s books include “The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth” (Faber & Faber, £10.99)

Frances Wilson is an author, biographer and critic, whose works include The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth. Her most recent book is How to Survive the Titanic, or the Sinking of J Bruce Ismay. She reviews for the TLS, the Telegraph and the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 15 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Isis can be beaten

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Radio as shelter: Grenfell Tower was too frightening to look at

No song seemed to fit the mood on Hayes FM.

“Amidst all this horror, I hope to bring you some light relief. Here’s James Taylor.” Two days after the Grenfell Tower fire, a popular community station a little west of the incident was uncertain what note to strike.

The repeated ads for alarms detecting carbon-monoxide leaks (“this silent killer”) and tips on how to prevent house fires (“Don’t overwhelm your sockets and cause a spark”) sounded perhaps a little overassertive, but then the one for a day-long course focusing on resisting gender stereotyping (“Change the narrative”) felt somewhat out of place. And no song seemed to fit. James Taylor’s “Shower the People” turned out OK, but the Cranberries’ “The Icicle Melts” was unceremoniously faded out mid-flow.

This does often happen on Hayes FM, though. There are times when the playlist is patently restless, embodying that hopeless sensation when you can’t settle and are going through tracks like an unplugged bath – Kate Bush too cringey, T-Rex too camp – everything reminding you of some terrible holiday a couple of years ago. Instead, more ads. Watch your salt intake. Giving up smoking might be a good idea. Further fire safety. (“Attach too many appliances and it could cause an overload and that could cause a fire. Fire kills.”)

Then a weather report during which nobody could quite bring themselves to state the obvious: that the sky was glorious. A bell of blue glass. The morning of the fire – the building still ablaze – I had found three 15-year-old boys, pupils at a Latimer Road school that stayed closed that day because of the chaos, sitting in their uniforms on a bench on the mooring where I live, along the towpath from the tower.

They were listening to the perpetual soft jangle of talk radio as it reported on the situation. “Why the radio?” I asked them, the sight of young people not focused on visuals clearly unusual. “It’s too frightening to look at!” they reasoned.

Radio as shelter. As they listened, one of them turned over in his hand a fragment of the tower’s cladding that he must have picked up in the street on the way over – a sticky-charcoaled hack of sponge, which clung like an insect to his fingers whenever he tried to drop it. 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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