Colm Tóibín has been
a favorite of mine since the inception of Likely Stories in the fall of 2009. He was born May 30, 1955. He is an Irish novelist, short story writer,
essayist, playwright, journalist, critic, and poet. He has won dozens of awards—far too many to
list here. He is currently a professor
of the Humanities at Columbia University in New York, and he is a professor of
creative writing at the University of Manchester. In 2017, he was appointed Chancellor of
Liverpool University in 2017. Colm has
written elevan novels along with scads of non-fiction (Wikipedia). Nora
Webster is his tenth novel. He has a
dream career for any aspiring creative writer.
Ever since I immersed myself in the works of James Joyce, I have developed
a fascination for Irish writers. Colm Tóibín
is at the undisputed head of that list.
Nora Webster is the story of a woman with four children—two
young ladies away at school, Fiona and Aine, and two boys still in high school,
Conor and Donal. As the story opens,
Nora has been widowed in her early 40s.
Maurice was the love of her life, and despite this devastating event,
she organizes her finances to take care of her children through college. At first, lots of her neighbors come bearing
food and offering help to the point she becomes reclusive. Tóibín writes, “Once more she noted the
hectoring tone, as though she were a child, unable to make proper
decisions. She had tried since the
funeral to ignore this tone, or tolerate it.
She had tried to understand that it was shorthand for kindness” (12).
One day, she gets in
the car and drives to a seaside vacation village to visit a house she and
Maurice owned. Everyone tells Nora she
should not make any rash decisions. When
she enters the house, she realizes it has no value to her without Maurice. On a spur of the moment, she sells it to a
friend, who gives her the fair market price.
No one takes advantage of Nora. Tóibín
writes, “‘Well, there are a lot of people who are very fond of you” (13). The children are disappointed, but they
accept Nora’s decision.
Nora pays a visit to
Fiona at school, and they walk to the train. Colm writes, “As they looked at one another, Nora
felt Fiona was hostile, and forced herself to remember how upset she must be, and
how lonely she might be too. She smiled as
she said that they would have to go and in return Fiona smiled at her and the boys.
As soon as Nora walked away, however, she
felt helpless and regretted not having said something kind or special, or consoling
to Fiona before they left her; maybe even something as simple as asking her when
she was coming down next, or emphasizing how much they looked forward to seeing
her soon. She wished she had a phone in the
house so she could keep in more regular touch with her. She thought that she might write Fiona a note in
the morning thanking her for coming to meet them” (29). Nora is as empathetic and kind as anyone could
The biggest problem Nora faces is dealing with her
oldest son, Donal. He stutters and slowly
bonds with one of Nora’s sisters. Margaret
is fond of the boy, and when he develops a fascination for photography, she builds
a darkroom in her home. Tóibín’s Nora Webster is the story of a wise, warm,
empathetic, strong woman, who, when forced to take the reins of the family, does
so with determination. This story can be
enjoyed by all ages. 5 stars
After his stunning
novel, Our Souls at Night blew me
away, I am on the verge of completing my reading Kent Haruf’s entire
collection. My latest read, Benediction tells the story of the
residents of Holt Colorado in a series of vignettes. The Johnson women—Willa and Alene--and Berta
May and her granddaughter, Alice, and the main characters, Dad Lewis, his wife
Mary, and their daughter Lorraine, are all interesting, thoughtful, kind, and
generous people. The only missing person
is Frank, the son of Dad and Mary. He
disappeared years ago after a conflict with Dad. Frank contacts them from time to time, but
eventually, he disappears for good.
After the bad news
from a doctor, Haruf writes, ‘They drove out from Denver away from the mountains,
back onto the high plains: sagebrush and soapweed and blue grama and buffalo
grass in the pastures, wheat and corn in the planted fields. On both sides of the highway were the gravel
country roads going out away under the pure blue sky, all the roads straight as
the lines ruled in a book, with only a few small isolated towns spread across
the flat open country” (3).
After the visit to the
doctor, Mary collapsed in her living room and was rushed to the hospital. They called their daughter, Lorraine, to come
and help out. Haruf writes, “The next
day, Lorraine drove into Holt on Highway 34 after the sun had already gone down
and the blue street lamps had come on at the corners. It was all familiar to her. She turned north off the highway and drove
along past the quiet night-lighted houses set back behind the front yards, some
of the yards bare of trees or bushes next to vacant lots filled with weeds—tall
sunflowers and redroot and pigweed—and then there was Berta May’s house which
had been there when she was a child, and then their own white house. She got out and went up to the porch, a
pretty woman in her mid fifties with dark hair.
The air was cool and smelled fresh of the country in the evenings out on
the high plains” (15). I have only been
to Colorado twice, but this description recalls all the details of those brief
Willa and Alene. He writes, “It was her
way, Willa’s manner and her character to keep the house clean and in good
repair out in the country east of Holy though few people drove by to see it and
almost no one ever visited and entered it.
A white house with blue shutters and a blue shingled roof. The outbuildings were all painted a deep barn
red with white trim snd they were in good condition too though they had not
been used for thirty years, since her husband had died. // She still drove her
car. Her eyes were failing but not so
much nor so fast she was ready to give up driving” (46). There seems to be a favorite color of Haruf’s,
blue, and I will look for this in the last two novels I have.
This story is—like all
of Haruf’s novels—spell-binding and comforting in the goodness of these people. I will be sad to complete my reading of Haruf;
however, this is a collection I will go back to someday. Kent Haruf’s prose is so soft and smooth, I
can hear their gentle voices. Even the
weather receives as much attention as larger details, and I found myself
immersed in the author’s world. Benediction is a novel I found hardest
to put down. Mesmerized is a word I do
not often use, but it aptly applies here.