There’s an excellent children’s novel called The Year of Billy Miller by Kevin Henkes. Very little happens, but the novel has the mysterious quality of weightiness, as if it has been written with a kind of religious intensity. Toward the end of the novel, Billy, a second grader, discovers a bird that died after flying into a glass windowpane. Billy is young enough to be deeply disturbed by the death of the bird.
His mom is with him; she just observes that the world is a weird place. She encourages Billy to be silent, and to notice all of the little sounds happening around him. There’s a kind of humming, even when the planet seems to be very quiet. Life is always happening; things are always changing. The scene ends with mother and child listening — that’s all.
I thought of that book in relation to Colm Toibin’s new novel, Nora Webster. Like Billy Miller, Nora Webster is a protagonist whose life is superficially uneventful. She doesn’t kill anyone. She doesn’t participate in any spy missions. There’s nothing sexy or romantic in her story. She’s just trying to make sense of her existence. Like Billy Miller, she has a story whose intensity is a bit of a surprise.
Nora’s beloved schoolteacher husband, Maurice, has just died. Nora must look after four children and find a job to stay financially solvent. She returns to an office where she worked a few decades ago. Her colleague is a shrill, neurotic witch who gets by through the near-constant act of inflicting pain on others. She is unhappy; therefore, none of her co-workers may be happy.
In other news, Nora gets her hair dyed for the first time, then feels self-conscious. An odd nun observes her from a window and encourages her to stay focused, to resist the urge to give in to mourning-induced despair. One of Nora’s daughters goes missing for a while, and may or may not be a victim of the violence between Ireland and England. And Nora takes up singing, for which she has talent. It’s too late to make much of this talent: Nora will not be going down a Susan Boyle-ish narrative road. Still, music helps her; it’s an interest, a means by which she meets some new people.
Colm Toibin is a quietly radical writer, having done a bit of everything. First, he was a reporter. Then he wrote some novels, whose subject matter include Henry James and a young heterosexual woman in Brooklyn. He wrote a series of short stories, including a bold essayistic account of his own experiences of anonymous homosexual sex in Barcelona. Then came a memoir from the perspective of Mary, mother of Jesus.
In Toibin’s retelling, Mary is pissed at her son. What was all that nonsense about claiming to be God? Why did he have to go and get himself killed? Why couldn’t he just keep quiet and pray to Artemis, as any sensible person would do?
Toibin believes that a good novel takes its strength not from dramatic incidents, but from thematic patterns and deep thought. A good novel is like a complex Persian rug: the reader must work to notice and appreciate the patterns. Toibin has written eloquently about writers whose own work he loves. There’s an essay about the role of aunts in Jane Austen’s fiction. There’s an account of Yeats’s sad, strained relationship with his own artistically-ambitious father.
Also, you’ll find in Toibin’s corpus a clear-eyed assessment of the career of Brian Moore, a prolific novelist whose great achievement was The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne. And there’s a sympathetic portrait of Samuel Beckett in his youth, a man unmoored, spending too much time in museums, making jokes about poop, wondering how he will fill his next six decades. (You’ll find these essays in New Ways to Kill Your Mother.)
Nora Webster ends with Nora recovering from a strange sickness, brought on by pills, and by her insistence on doing a bit of housework that is probably beyond her own capabilities. You feel her sickness very deeply. She is careening around, out of control. The world becomes a scary place, as it tends to when you’re sick. Of course, the people around you don’t feel the terror. But when all is not well in your own internal world, you can’t calm yourself by thinking about the people around you. Toibin is very good at noticing all of this.
Nora has a feverish dream in which the ghost of her husband warns her that one of her sons may meet an untimely end. The dream seems to be a part of waking life—as, indeed, dreams do tend to feel like waking life while we’re having them. Nora snaps into consciousness. She feels unsettled. An unidentifiable noise is coming from a nearby room.
That’s all there is to it. The sentences aren’t loudly virtuosic. They’re just a means by which Toibin communicates his own fascination with a fully-realized, 3-D creation: a woman who seems very, very real, and who isn’t actually real at all.