Last year, Kirstyn and I spoke very highly of Claire Messud’s sixth novel, The Woman Upstairs, on the Writer and The Critic podcast. It’s a book that refuses to shy away from the raw, passionate emotions of the lead female character, Nora, after she’s betrayed by a close friend. Her anger and despair is confronting and difficult. For some, this emotional honesty cast Nora in a less than attractive light. But in providing us with this unflinching portrayal of the “spurned” woman, Messud rejects the idea that women in fiction must always be dignified.
Now, contrast The Woman Upstairs with Nora Webster, Colm Toibin’s Costa Book Award nominated novel. Aside from the neat coincidence that both books feature a female protagonist named Nora, they also deal with strong emotions. In the case of Nora Webster that emotion is grief. However, Messud and Toibin’s approach couldn’t be further apart. As Ron Charles points out in his review of Nora Webster for the Washington Post, the book is restrained and never “succumb[s] to a single melodramatic or sentimental phrase”. He also delights in pointing out that “readers in search of flaming buildings and libidos should turn the page now.” Charles concludes his laudatory review with the following observation:
[The novel’s] barely undulating plot and exactingly modulated tone serve as a kind of guide to living without excess drama. Nora never breaks down; her children never lash out; none of them spray their grief on Twitter (they don’t even have a phone in the house). It’s a poignant reminder of a time when people responded to hardship with dignity instead of indignation.
Putting aside the silly quip about Twitter, it’s clear from Charles’ reading of Nora Webster that he sees her strength as a character in her dignified approach to grief. Whether this is a gendered issue, whether Charles’ would change his view if the protagonist was a man, I can’t say with any certainty. It’s interesting, though, that his review of The Woman Upstairs acknowledges the books “rage” but qualifies it by saying,
It’s fantastically smart rage — anger that never distorts, even in the upper registers. When Nora complains about women like herself who dutifully tuck themselves away, she ricochets from Charlotte Bronte to Jean Rhys to Henry David Thoreau to Ralph Ellison. Wherever she digs, she hits rich veins of indignation.
In other words, it’s OK for a woman’s anger to be the engine of the novel as long as there’s an “intellectual fuel” driving it. Charles subsequent comment that the novel transcends gender because Nora’s “pained howl” is relatable to both sexes is just another way of diluting Messud’s message by excusing and justifying raw emotion when it comes from a woman.
Going back to the actual subject of this review, I believe that Toibin – in line with Charles reading of the novel – goes out of his way to dampen and mitigate Nora Webster’s grief. The novel begins with Nora coming to terms with the recent death of her husband Maurice. In her mid-40s she now has to consider selling the holiday house and restarting her career to support herself and her four children, especially the two young boys, Donal and Conor, that live at home.
Toibin does the very clever thing of not telling the reader when the novel is set. Those who live in Ireland or the UK and are aware of the politics of the period will quickly figure it out. But ignorant Australian’s like myself may only recognise the year as 1969 when the moon landing is mentioned. Neil Armstrong’s lunar shenanigans aside, this is also the year “The Troubles” began in Northern Ireland, an understated umbrella term for 29 years of sectarian violence between Catholics and Protestants.
The moon landing and The Troubles are an ongoing presence in the novel, however they feel muted when compared to Nora’s practical need to support her children and her household. It’s only when her daughter, Aine, goes missing after a protest in Dublin that Nora focuses on The Troubles. And it’s only when her son Donal fears he’s going to miss the moon landing – they’re on holiday and Donal doesn’t have reliable access to a TV – that Nora acknowledge the significance of the event.
Like these major historical moments, Nora’s reaction to her husband’s death sometimes feels like an event that’s occurred to someone else. It’s not to say that she didn’t love Maurice, the novel features a number of beautifully rendered passages that make clear that she misses him deeply. But even these reminisces have a faded quality to them, an echo of mourning. For example:
She could barely see ahead of her as she walked. It might have been easy to imagine that this was a place that belonged more to Maurice than to her. It was the world filled with absences. There was merely the hushed sound of the water and stray cries of seabirds flying close to the surface of the calm sea. She could make out the sun as it glowed through the curtain of haze. It was unlikely that Maurice was anywhere except buried in the graveyard where she had left him. But nonetheless the idea lingered that if he, or his spirit, was anywhere in the world, then he would be here.
Nora Webster is a woman who, without fuss or drama, carries her family on her shoulders. And we’re meant to admire her strength – the way she stands up to those who either get in her way or disrupt the lives of her children – and feel sympathy when she falters – her struggle with Donal’s introverted nature and stutter and her own inability to accept help from others.
But I kept waiting for the penny to drop, for that moment when Nora takes a moment to confront her grief. I’m not talking about an extreme outburst where she rents her clothes and castigates God for taking her husband. I accept that Nora isn’t that type of person. But the fact that she seems to sidestep her emotions completely means that rather than admire her strength I felt sympathy for her damaged emotional state. There’s this telling exchange between Nora and Josie about the death of Nora’s father.
[Josie said,] “I remember you and Catherine and Una after your father died, and it took you all much longer. It was a very sad house then, but children bounce back, that’s the great thing.”
“I don’t think they do. I never did,” Nora said. “You learn, no matter what age you are, to keep things to yourself…”
Toibin never really unpacks this glimpse into Nora’s psyche, never looks deeper at what she means when says that children never bounce back, but that they learn to hide their sadness. Are we meant to take away from this that Nora is emotionally damaged, that her reaction to her husband and her inability to grieve isn’t a case of dignity over indignation, but instead a character study of a woman unable to her face her own grief? Is her hallucination of Maurice toward the end of the novel an attempt by her psyche to deal with this?
If I was being charitable I’d argue that these are the very questions that Toibin wants us to consider. But too much of the novel is skewed to Ron Charles’ reading, i.e. that the lack of sentimentality on Nora’s part is a study of dignity and not damage. And if that’s the case then frankly I’d rather read books like The Woman Upstairs where woman are given an opportunity to express themselves and be unlikable as a result. I can understand that some might be inspired by Nora Webster’s strength, her ability to compartmentalise for the sake of her family. But I can’t help but feel that this novel would be far more powerful if Nora was allowed to truly feel.