Having spent a not inconsiderable amount of time over previous days proposing wildly romantic things for people to do in Paris over the Saint Valentin period, it struck me that the main character of Colm Toibin’s recent novel “Nora Webster” could really do with someone to sweep her off her feet and transport her down the Seine on a bateau mouche, or to knock her socks off with an inappropriately large bouquet of roses and a bottle of Moet-Chandon awaiting her as she flings open that luxurious hotel door… but then couldn’t we all…
Reality all too often checks in, and what happens in Toibin’s books is in fairness really more likely and realistic than any flurries of extravagance coming out of left bank. Yet as with the other novels by this author that I have read (and there’s still a little way to go), there is a constant air of ambivalence which makes it hard to decide whether I unequivocally admire his work and love his writing, or feel just slightly short-changed without being able to put a finger on quite why I don’t get swept away by it either.
I confess also to regularly confusing Colm Tóibín with Colum McCann for some reason and much to my chagrin – their writing style is completely different, so it must be the similarity of their Christian names, but even seeing “TransAtlantic” on the shop bookshelves the other day made me think instantly of “Brooklyn”. Wrong chap, although they certainly both know how to coin a phrase …
I first came to Tóibín via “The Master”, which won no end of accolades and was shortlisted for the Man Booker back in 2004, losing out to “The Line Of Beauty”. I don’t know if I am the only person in the world not to have been bowled over the ‘factionalised’ story of four years in the life of Henry James, but confess to now barely being able to remember much more than the bare bones of the tale that was told. I do recall being irritated by a repetitive use of a phrase like “I can imagine” and there being, I believe, a series of indeed imaginary conversations. I know the writing was beautiful and possibly poignant, yet my own imagination was not captured at the time and unlike several other books I feel I’d like to revisit and give a second shot, somehow this isn’t one of them. Have I missed the plot completely here?
When “Brooklyn” came along X years later remember leaping at the chance to read it after it scooped up the Costa Award and the author got nominated one more time for the Booker. We read it with our wondrous Monceau book group that I still have such waves of nostalgia for, especially now we are all scattered round the globe and so many of you flew the coop and waved goodbye to Paree, not unlike the heroine of the book herself. Not all of the group were utterly enamoured with the tale, as I hazily recall, although I enjoyed it much, more more than its predecessor. What I did rather like was the gentle, understated tone, but this too risks leaning over into an odd one-dimensional bent here and there so it’s well nigh impossible to empathise with Eilis, because we can’t really get into her head at all.
Consequently, throughout the reading I didn’t feel particularly involved or hopelessly caught up in our main girl’s plight – her homesickness when she arrives so far from home is very tangible, and her dilemma is real enough, but in a funny sort of way I was far more intrigued by wondering just what was really going on in her Mammy’s mind while all the repressed emotion was kicking in during the final chapters of the novel.
Having said that, without this book there could never have been the film, and having now seen it am still reeling from just how good it is. Much has to do with the filming and the capturing of the times in ways that seem much more fluid than the written word in this instance. It’s just like stepping back in time, and Saoirse Ronan, she whose-name-I-wish-I-could-pronounce, is Sheer Perfection in this role. She seems to have so much more oomph than the character she represents from the book, and while I spent much of the time wishing Eilis would not be so darn passive while turning the pages, on the big screen she comes across as far stronger and somehow more dignified than I expected. Maybe I was mis-reading Tóibín and this was how he too saw her in his mind’s eye – so maybe once again have fallen short.
And now I’ve just finished “Nora Webster” – and here we go, all over again. We’re back in Wexford, Ireland, and Eilie’s Mammy even makes a speedy appearance at the very beginning of this story, telling us more in two lines than she imparted in the whole of the previous novel: “‘And I couldn’t face her or speak to her, and she sent me photographs of him and her together in New York, but I couldn’t look at them. They were the last thing in the world I wanted to see’…May Lacey began to rummage in her handbag”. But this story is all about someone who stayed the course – Nora Webster finds herself widowed in her early forties, raising the two children who remain at home on her own, and facing demons of necessity she had not expected to encounter at her age (“Her years of freedom had come to an end; it was as simple as that”).
Contrary to Eilie, the grown-up Nora, while still verging on the compliant at times, does seem to exercise much more welly and determination, and my understanding of the book was a validation of her starting to come to terms with taking ownership of her life and beginning to peel back the layers, as the opinions of those around come to matter less and less. “They would all see it now, all of her visitors, Nora thought, and they would think her extravagant. She would have to steel herself, no matter what comments they made, not to care. She had wanted this and now she had it”.
I quite admire Nora. I liked the bits that weren’t said out loud and the parts where she realized she was a far from perfect parent. I enjoyed the passages when a rebellious streak manifests itself, such as “‘Here we are again, Nora, then’ Peggy said, speaking like a doctor to a patient who had come to have her bandages removed or her blood pressure taken. Nora looked at her coldly”. I was as thrilled as I think she was when she was entranced by the music pouring out of the stereo record player in Cloake’s electrical shop in Rafter street where’s buying, of course, a new iron.
I managed this time to sink much more deeply into the restrained language and subtle depiction of a claustrophobic existence that I am learning the author portrays so well – but once again, I wanted to love Nora and wanted to love the book wholeheartedly, and found that I couldn’t. Grrrr.
I listened to Colm Tóibín on Desert Island Discs just the other day. His recounting of having a stammer and of being shipped off for a while like the two boys in “Nora Webster”, his tales of a household full of woman chattering on while he was growing up and the fact that “nothing they said escaped me” have made me all the more curious to read more rather than abandon ship just yet. “The Heather Blazing” could well be the next venture – mind you, on the back cover, we are entreated to the snippet that “Eamon Redmond is a judge in Ireland’s high court, a man remote from his wife, his son and daughter and, at last outwardly, from …” Do we spot a bit of a recurring theme here? I suppose there’s only one way to find out …
The Master: 6/10, Shortlisted for the Man Booker in 2004, Winner of the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, etc
Brooklyn: 8/10 – Costa Book Award Winner 2009, Longlisted for the Man Booker, International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award Nominated
Nora Webster: 8/10 – Costa Book Nominated 2014, Folio Prize Nominated 2015