Nora Webster is grieving the loss of her husband. This novel, set in Ireland, is the story of that process, as the reader travels through grief with Nora and learns how to handle life in the aftermath of irreparable loss.
One of the adjustments Nora faces is how to make decisions without the support, affirmation and guidance from her husband.
“She thought of the freedom that marriage to Maurice had given her, the freedom, once the children were in school, or a young child was sleeping, to walk into this room at any time of the day and take down a book and read; the freedom to go into the front room at any time and look out of the window at the street and read; the freedom to go into the front room at any time and look out of the window at the street and Vinegar Hill across the valley or the clouds in the sky, letting her mind be idle, going back to the kitchen, or to attend to the children when they came home from school but as part of a life of ease which included duty. The day belonged to her, even if others could call on her, take up her time, distract her. Never once, in the twenty-one years she had run this household, had she felt a moment of boredom or frustration. Now her day was to be taken from her…her years of freedom had come to an end; it was as simple as that.”
When the book begins, Nora is almost resentful of the sympathy that is poured out to her and the constant visits from neighbors seeking to bring comfort. She wants her privacy; she wants uninterrupted time to grieve without having to answer the well-meaning platitudes from friends and acquaintances.
“When she asked herself what she was interested in, she had to conclude that she was interested in nothing at all. What mattered to her now could be shared with no one…she wondered if she would ever again be able to have a normal conversation and what topics she might be able to discuss with ease and interest.
At the moment the only topic she could discuss was herself. And everyone, she felt, had heard enough about her. They believed it was time that she stop brooding and think of other things. But there were no other things. There was only what had happened. It was as though she lived underwater and had given up on the struggle to swim towards air. It would be too much. Being released into the world of others seemed impossible; it was something she did not even want. How could she explain this to anyone who sought to know how she was or asked if she was getting over what happened?”
Nora has four children; two adult daughters and two sons still at home. She experiences the usual problems that parenting brings; the concerns she has with a son who seems to turn his life completely over to his obsession with photography, the interference from family who decide (without input from Nora) that it is time for her son to transfer to boarding school, the difficulties of returning to work after being at home for over twenty years, and the adjustments of going to bed alone at night after an evening spent in solitude.
Although a novel written about the grieving process, it is also a novel about growth. We see Nora pick up the challenge to get herself a new dress, a haircut, and join a musical appreciation group. Her interest in music develops throughout the book and she rises to the challenge of handling her finances with her decision to sell their summer cottage. Set in the turbulent period of the 1960’s of Ireland’s history, we are shocked along with Nora and her family as we see uprisings and shootings of citizens who are simply attending a peaceful protest.
This is not the typical ‘widow- meets- unattached- man -and- gets- herself- a- new -husband (and all her problems are now therefore solved)’ story, but rather a novel about a woman acquiring the confidence to make choices, often difficult ones, while healing and coping with an immeasurable loss. That it is written by a man makes it all the more interesting to read, as he has patterned this story on his own childhood. Toibin’s thoughtful and sensitive portrayal of character and personality, especially from a woman’s perspective, seem unparalleled.
Written sympathetically and with insight, this is a quiet book, but one that kept my interest as I wanted to continue reading to find out what happens to Nora and her family; will she succeed in this journey, or will she cave into the pressures that she is presented with?
and I enjoyed reading this review: