When I finished Colm Toibin’s celebrated novel, Nora Webster, I had the humbling epiphany that I didn’t understand it. I sensed this coming when I felt the novel running out of pages before the author had made his point. Yet the book mesmerized me, and the realization I didn’t get it made me feel kind of dumb. So I read some reviews, figuring they would at least give me a coherent explanation of the plot. But I discovered that the reviewers didn’t understand Nora Webster any better than I did. They, however, were not about to admit it – and instead unapologetically explained for me a novel I had not read.
Nora Webster is a book in which nothing happens – nothing, that is, except life. Set in Ireland during the early years of “the troubles,” it is a story about ordinary people trying to cope with their lives. They are unheroic and inconsistent, often impenetrable. And Toibin doesn’t try to explain them for us – indeed, we end up knowing little about them, about their motivations or their inner feelings or even whether we like them or not.
This, perhaps, is the point I had missed. Toibin is not a sociologist. He is a storyteller. He doesn’t want to make his characters comprehensible. He wants to make them human. And as we are absorbed into the story of Nora’s life, we come to know her as we know everyone else, which is to say, hardly at all.