Colm Tóibín’s Nora Webster has been billed as a kind of companion volume to his last novel, Brooklyn. Both are stories of women raised at midcentury in small-town Ireland, where they were not expected to have, much less act upon, desires of their own. Brooklyn’s young Eilis Lacey goes dutifully from the confines of her province to work in America, where, after a time, she comes to appreciate the freedom of emigration, though not without later coming to understand its cost. Nora Webster is a rival study of a woman who stayed put into middle age and found, through marriage, shelter from the intrusiveness of local busybodies. After two decades of such quasi privacy, widowhood has left her once more vulnerable to the ordinary, punitive scrutiny of a “town where everybody knew about her and all the years ahead were mapped out for her.” Her future is apparently set, and her trajectory is unlikely to have anything at all to do with her preferences.
The two novels seem best described not as companion volumes, however, but as two panels of a triptych about longing, and the expression and concealment of that longing. The third panel is The Master, Tóibín’s 2004 novel about half a dozen years in the later life of Henry James. Nora and Eilis have been matter-of-factly expected neither to possess nor to express any desires of their own; Tóibín’s James, by contrast, strongly suspects what it is that he wants—other men—but understands, from an early age, that these particular appetites must be restrained. Because all three novels deal in desire that’s been stunted, thwarted, or forbidden—desire that resists articulation—they necessarily occupy themselves with different qualities and circumstances of silence. Henry James’s innermost self is withdrawn and camouflaged because he’s afraid of the distinct desire he might reveal. Eilis and Nora, in contrast, have withdrawn themselves because they’re no longer sure, or they realize too late, what it is they might possibly want.
The three of them hesitate to speak because they’re afraid of the consequences of being overheard and too well understood. Henry James took refuge in exile, which not only provided distance from scrutiny, but also served to hide his secret desires by imposing on them the homesickness and exhilaration of life as a watchful stranger. Neither Eilis, who as an immigrant makes journeys only between her home and adopted countries, nor Nora can afford the independent European travels that provide James some relief.
A good deal of Colm Tóibín’s fiction is set in and around his hometown of Enniscorthy, County Wexford, in the southeast of Ireland; it’s a small and inward-looking corner of a small and inward-looking island, so it ought to come as no surprise that a character in one novel is liable to come across or hear news of a character gone somehow…
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