What We Thought: Nora Webster is a middle-aged recent widow living in Wexford, Ireland in the late 60s. She has two daughters grown and beginning their own lives, and two sons, Donal, aged 14-15, who suffers with a dreadful stammer, and Conor, several years younger. Her wider family includes her sisters and aunt, and her husband’s relatives all of whom both bear her up and drag her down.
Neighbours in the town of Enniscorthy all knew or knew of her husband, and she must daily suffer the condolences which serve to remind her of what she has lost. Maurice, a teacher, was well-thought of by most and Nora must negotiate the frequent references to him and accept the scrutiny of those who, though well-meaning, watch her closely to see how she copes.
Her finances now constrained, Nora has to return to work though she has been twenty or more years out of the workplace. Without her husband to buffer her she must also discover a new way to live. She makes her first tentative steps at developing a social life, joins a music appreciation society, and studies singing. She keeps some of her activities secret, or at least quiet, for fear she will be misunderstood and criticized.
Her mother, now dead, and her sisters have apparently always criticized Nora and as a counter to this she herself tries to be as uncritical of her children’s lives as she possibly can. This leads at times to her seeming almost totally detatched from them. Indeed much of Nora’s life is lived at a distance – the result of her grief and depression. Despite this apparant apathy she does have strong feelings which she internalises, though they do occasionally break out. Though outwardly passive most of the time, Nora is anything but in her head. Her ascerbic inner comments temper our vision of her as the plaything of circumstance.
There are no major events, adventures or plot points in this novel. Incidents which seem to be about to lead to some denouement fade away and are never referred to again. This is not a fault however; it is the perfect representation of everyday life where things simply happen and follow no writerly pattern.
As the book progresses one finds oneself drawn into the sedate rhythms of Nora’s life. Tóibín’s genius here is in letting us experience the dullness, the quotidian plod through ‘this happens’ then ‘this happens’ then ‘this happens’ all of which shows us what Nora’s existence is like and which allows us to inhabit it and feel it. We live with her, accompanying her on her inexorable trudge towards some hope of light and life. And though this may seem bleak, in fact there is gentle humour in this book and an underlying beauty.
This is a perfect book and a perfect reflection of a life which, though ordinary, is heroic in its ordinariness.
You’ll enjoy this if you like: Literary books about ordinary life.
Avoid if you dislike: Novels without much plot or adventure.
Ideal accompaniments: A shiny Schubert LP on the gramophone and a Babycham.
Genre: Literary / General Fiction.