THERE’S a particular genius in the art of small things, of painting with an eye to the details that make up a domestic interior.
Colm Tóibín’s latest, Nora Webster, does have a big picture – how a widow reconstructs herself after losing a husband – but it’s made up of small brushstrokes, identifying each area where a woman can remake herself.
The narrative from a woman’s perspective is tone-true, as was Tóibín’s well-received novel Brooklyn (the mother in that novel has a walk-on part), but unlike that book, Nora Webster doesn’t leave you feeling more depressed about life than you were at the start.
It’s set at the beginning of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, in Enniscorthy, Tóibín’s own roost. Small-town Ireland is his forte and this period is the one he grew up in: people still go to Mass; there are still nuns to be the voice of conscience; couples still get married; people get worked up about what’s happening in the North; Catholics still feel social inferiority in the company of Protestants. All wholly unlike contemporary Ireland, then, but convincing because it’s a world he can recreate from memory. And a world away from The Testament Of Mary, his bizarrely blasphemous take on the life of the Virgin.
It wouldn’t be giving away the plot to say that Nora Webster is about how a widow takes control of her life, but that’s about the size of it. For a while you think the narrator is going to go in for that dismal trick of dying on you, possibly mid-sentence, but no, it’s a false alarm.
She’s still living at the end. She has her hair cut, she returns to her job, she joins a union, she paints her back sitting room, joins a gramophone club, takes up singing, gets a new dress. None of it shattering, except for her couple of brushes with the world of the dead, but they may be imaginary.
But at the end you have the satisfying sense that this is a woman who has made sense of the world by living on her own terms. You catch a glimpse of how her family actually see her: as a bolshie, difficult piece of work. It’s all a bit Muriel Spark, this notion that women do best by not going out of their way to pander to anyone.
One pleasing way she makes a new identity is through singing and listening to music: “She realised that the music was leading her away from Maurice, away from her life with him… it was not merely that Maurice had no ear for music… it was the intensity of her time here; she was alone with herself in a place where he would never have followed her, even in death.”
So this is a novel in which nothing much happens, without much humour; just a woman’s life, nicely observed. And it works.