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24 October 2014

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.

By Frances Wilson

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.

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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)