Wednesday, January 7, 2015

An Irish Portrait

It seems appropriate that I start the new year with an old favorite. I've always had a soft spot for Irish writers, and Colm Tóibín, whose Brooklyn was one of my favorites of 2009, has written another powerful book. Set in Enniscorthy, a town in southeastern Ireland, during the late 1960s and early 1970s, Nora Webster tells the story of a middle-aged woman whose husband, a much beloved schoolteacher, has died of heart disease. Nora is struggling to deal with her loss, and to help her four children, especially her two young sons, come to terms with this new reality.

And honestly, not a whole lot happens. The book is the story of Nora's everday life. She sells a vacation cottage she can no longer afford, she goes back to work, she worries about her older son's stutter and his withdrawn attitude, she discovers a love for classical music and an interest in singing. There are no fireworks, no dramatic upheavals (although the events of Bloody Sunday are referenced), no shocking revelations. But that's what I love about Tóibín. His understated prose and matter-of-fact narrative carry a force that I can't explain. He revealed in an interview that he lost his own father at a young age, and that the stammering, angry son Donal is a version of himself. Maybe that's why his plain language seems to carry so much emotion.

Nora is no saint – at times she's not even very likable. Her evolution is gradual, but by the end of the novel she has squared her shoulders, faced her grief and moved forward into life. Tóibín has painted a subtle, honest portrait of a ordinary but complicated woman.