I am currently reading my way through a long list of science fiction and fantasy titles. (http://www.npr.org/2011/08/07/138938145/science-fiction-and-fantasy-finalists if you are interested in the list).
Set in Wexford, Ireland, Colm Tóibín’s superb seventh novel introduces the formidable, memorable and deeply moving Nora Webster. Widowed at forty, with four children and not enough money, Nora has lost the love of her life, Maurice, the man who rescued her from the stifling world to which she was born. And now she fears she may be drawn back into it. Wounded, strong-willed, clinging to secrecy in a tiny community where everyone knows your business, Nora is drowning in her own sorrow and blind to the suffering of her young sons, who have lost their father. Yet she has moments of stunning empathy and kindness, and when she begins to sing again, after decades, she finds solace, engagement, a haven—herself.
Nora Webster is a young widow in 1960s Ireland. She is charming, formidable, weak, heart-broken, and grief-stricken by turns. In age, Nora falls between my mother’s and my grandmother’s generations—about the time that women were supposed to aspire only to being housewives and that men were in charge of the finances and the family. When her husband Maurice dies, she is left as sole parent to four children and provider to at least the two youngest. She has to find her financial feet and deal with the work-world, all while trying to find a balance that will work for her children.
The older girls are already into young adulthood and in many ways are more sophisticated than their mother. They have education, are involved in politics, and have social lives which they find engaging. Nora has been so subsumed in being a wife and mother, that she is unsure which direction that she truly wants to go in. We watch her navigate her new life and try to maintain some privacy in the midst of a village where everyone seems to know everyone else’s business.
If you’ve lived in a small community, you know how judgemental their members can be. You question all your decisions—is it all right to laugh? After all, you’re supposed to be grieving. Can you go out or appear to have some fun without getting labelled as not suitably grief-stricken? It’s often a catch 22—people are often impatient for you to get over your grief, but also willing to judge if they think you are getting over it too quickly. In the end, you must do as Nora does—do what you want and let others think what they will. She rediscovers her love of music and singing, realizes that she can now decorate her home to her own taste, and generally becomes the captain of her own destiny.
The novel is a hopeful one—grief can be lived through, life can go on, and happiness can be regained, albeit in a much different life.