Ordinary Grief: Nora Webster by Colm Toibin
Nora’s husband, Maurice, has died of cancer, and this novel charts her grief in the months and years following his death. It has a subterranean feel at times, as if the reader, like Nora, is struggling to raise her head above water. Ordinary things happen – life goes on, one might say – people try to help, but it’s as if all other life is distant, flimsy, immaterial. Nora’s separated by the experience of grief and nothing else matters anywhere as much as the absence of her husband. She’s separated even from her four children – Fiona, Aine, Donal and Conor – and they suffer too, doubly so, as both parents are lost to them. When Nora returns to work, as she must to make ends meet, her two sons come home from school to an empty house. Toibin lays this down for the reader gently and dispassionately, resurrecting memories of the cold, silent rooms of our own childhood, and when we read that Donal has been bullying his younger brother when they’re alone, we’re sure we’re witnessing the slow, inevitable unravelling of a family. (I’ll add here that Nora and her family don’t in fact unravel, and that the novel ends with a sense of change and anticipation.)
I can’t write more about Nora Webster without first acknowledging Gregory Day’s excellent review in the Sydney Review of Books. You can read it here:
Day’s piece is just what a book review should be: well-researched, contextualised and beautifully written, so that you turn to the book with a greater understanding of and appetite for the writer and his subject matter.
This novel is a repository of all things quotidian: a gas fire in a living room where the boys watch TV, beans on toast, the instruction manual for a new washing machine bought by Catherine, Nora’s wealthier sister. It’s Toibin’s privileging of the quotidian that gives this novel its quiet hypnotic power, its veracity. We live Nora’s struggle on a daily basis. Through Nora’s eyes, and hers alone, we see how other people deal with someone who’s grieving: the things they say that irritate or comfort, the way they look and behave as if the griever has become alien, in a different realm. Nora has in fact moved into a different realm, and no-one seems able to reach her, with the exception of Jim, Maurice’s brother and his wife, Margaret, who were there with Nora when Maurice died. Even Nora’s children are across the chasm, and here lies the real sadness of the novel. Nora loves her children and hates to see them suffer but she operates within the conventions of her time and place – that repressive stoic Irish Catholicism that prevents her from honest conversation with everyone around her, most importantly her children. Toibin captures this repressive mood very well, and the reader flinches at what’s left unsaid and undone as Nora’s boys drift around her, unmoored in their own grief. Donal particularly suffers, perhaps because he’s older and more introverted than his brother, Conor. Donal develops a stammer that, while discussed out of his presence with his aunt Margaret, is left unaddressed or unremarked upon by his mother for a long time. The stammer stands as the outward symptom of Donal’s unhappiness and Nora, in Donal’s eyes at least, pays it no heed.
All this might tend to make the reader judge Nora harshly: she should be thinking of her children’s wellbeing more than her own, we could say. But Toibin elicits our sympathy instead. Nora is fallible – headstrong, proud, irritable, emotionally absent – yet she’s so well drawn, and her grief so large, so convincing that we understand and forgive her, just as we might understand and forgive our own mother’s behaviour in the wake of our father’s death.
When it comes to protecting her young from the meddling of others, Nora becomes a tiger mother, passionate and all at once present, electrified. Education and intellect are prized in Nora’s family – they are a clever, studious lot – and when Conor is moved from the A-class to the B-class at school without explanation, Nora goes on the warpath, threatening the principal, the unlikeable Brother Herlihy, with a school gate picket and a ‘widow’s curse.’ The other teachers at the school, loyal to Maurice’s memory – he was a teacher there, too – and aware of Nora’s legendary iron will, stand up to Brother Herlihy, and soon Conor’s back in his old class. Pretending calm, even nonchalance when Conor tells her this news, Nora doesn’t disclose to him her part in his reversal of fortunes, even when he asks her directly. Emotion is again reined in, and words and deeds kept hidden.
As already mentioned, Nora and her family are faring better by the end of the narrative than when we first meet them. Toibin doesn’t sugar-coat, but the reader leaves Nora’s story with a sense of cautious optimism, as Nora kneels by her living room fire and feeds Maurice’s letters to her into the flames. Her sisters – with whom Nora has had many minor disagreements – have just left the house with Maurice’s clothes: Nora has at last let them go. She’s taken up singing, and has just been asked by her respected singing teacher to join a choir. Her love of music – both the act of singing as well as listening to classical recordings – has grown through the novel, and we read her quiet yet profound pleasure at being chosen for the Wexford choir as a symbol of recovery. The children, too, are moving on: the two girls into adulthood in Dublin, while Donal has moved to boarding school after, in a rare moment of intimacy, he tells Nora why he’s floundering at the school where Maurice taught:
He looked at her, and the look suggested a rawness that she had never seen in him before.
‘Has it been bad?’
‘The rooms are all the rooms he taught in. I sit in the classroom he came into every day.’
His tone was direct and hard; he did not stammer. She held him as he began to cry.
And they all l-look at me and f-feel sorry for me. And I c-can’t st-study. And I c-can’t do anything. And I hate them all.’
Donal has taken up photography – it suits his interiority and intensity – and he spends most of his free time in the dark room that his Aunt Margaret has built for him in her house. Nora’s acutely aware of the closeness between Margaret and Donal but seems resigned to it, perhaps realising that her grief prevents her from providing for Donal what Margaret so readily can.
The turning point of the novel comes soon after the darkest hour, when Nora, distressed by insomnia and nightmares brought on by painkillers, sees Maurice in her bedroom, sitting in the rocking chair. She has felt him close once before, on the beach at Cush where she fled in anger after a fight with a work colleague, at the same time remembering with great anguish the pain Maurice suffered before he died, but in the bedroom he has a corporeal presence.
Toibin writes: He was wearing the sports coat with green and blue flecks that they had bought at Funge’s in Gorey, and grey slacks and a grey short and a grey tie. He smiled for a moment as she pushed the door closed with her back. He was like he had been before he got sick. They talk for a while but Maurice speaks too enigmatically for her to understand, and soon his presence fades:
She heard the sound of a car horn beeping on the street. She was lying across the bed with all her clothes on. When she sat up the room was empty. When she crossed the room and touched the rocking chair it rocked gently back and forth on the old springs. She put her hand where he had been sitting but there was no heat from it, nor any sign that anyone had been there.
Nora drives to her Aunt Josie’s to tell her about Maurice’s appearance. Aunt Josie tells her she was dreaming but Nora resists this interpretation:
She began to rock back and forth, crying. ‘If I could be with him . . .’
‘What did you say?’
‘If I could be with him, that’s what I said.’
Aunt Josie puts Nora to bed and rallies the family around her. And Nora rests and recovers while her sisters look after her boys. In a beautiful scene close to the end of the novel, Nora wakes on the couch to hear Aunt Josie and her two sisters talking about her: critically, humorously, lovingly, knowingly, as only close family can:
Nora began to laugh.
‘Look, she’s awake,’ Phyllis said.
‘We were just talking about you,’ Catherine said.
‘I heard every word,’ Nora replied.
Nora’s laughter is genuine, spontaneous and surprising; a sign of better things to come.
Grief following the death or loss of a partner, parent or child is the price one pays for human connection and thus an unavoidable part of our humanity. We put great store in love, therefore we grieve the loss of love and the loved one. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross wrote famously on the five stages of grief, but current thinking suggests that people don’t need to grieve in five distinct and orderly stages. Instead, everyone grieves in their own way and at their own pace. While the feelings can be similar, grieving is not depression. However a small proportion of people may develop prolonged or complicated grief and some of these people may also have underlying depression. This article also states that feeling the presence of the deceased is commonly experienced by the bereaved.
Below is a very good summary article on the current psychological approach to grief and grieving:
I would also highly recommend Joan Didion’s memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, in which she writes about the death of her husband.