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Book Review: I Hate Nora Webster (Contains Spoilers)

Nora Webster dramatises the life of a recently widowed woman and her young family in a small town in Ireland in the late 1960s.

Released 2nd 2014 in the UK (Oct in the US).

Nora Webster Front Cover

Review: 5 stars

I so loved this tale, so intricately told, of a young widow and her children in Ireland in the late 1960s, but I have to say, I hated the main character, Nora Webster. In fact I would go so far as to say she enraged me. I'm not sure if I was supposed to hate her or have sympathy for her. I keep feeling I should be feeling sorry for her but I couldn't find it in me. Yes, she had lost her husband but she was so selfish. It was almost like she was going on a power trip. Her four children had lost their father but she seemed to have very little regard for them, making decisions, like selling the family holiday cottage, even though her daughter begged her not to. I am curious to know if Mr Toibin intended for the reader to dislike Mrs Webster. I wonder if I felt like I did because I was once one of those Webster children.

You may think that this is a very odd way to rate a book but there was no other way I could think to put it. I loved the book, the language, the dialogue. It's taut with things unsaid, as in this passage where, after the death of the father, Nora tells her daughter that she is selling their holiday home:

‘I’m sorry,’ Nora said.

‘He loved that house didn’t he?’

‘Your father?’

Fiona lowered her head.

In the slow unfolding of the Webster’s new life and the way Mr. Toibin holds the story right the way to the end you always feel in competent hands. But I could not find it in me to like Nora Webster. I kept trying but the more I read the more she enraged me. She was so selfish, so uncaring for her four children. It was all about her, and because of her selfishness I couldn’t even empathise with her grief. But I suppose grief, by its very nature, has to be selfish because an individual has to turn inwards to find the strength to overcome their grief.

You may ask, why would I give a book a five star rating when I hate the main character so much? Surely with good writing a character should not be just black or white but multi-layered? I don’t believe anyone is one hundred percent evil. For instance Blofeld in James Bond loved his cat. You have to let the reader see something about the character that they can connect to, a chink in their armour. So why could I not empathise with Nora Webster? I think, in truth, the answer lies with me. It is not Colm Toibin’s portrayal of the character that is at fault; it is as I say in my review:

I was once one of those Webster Children. My mother, at thirty-seven, was left a widow with three children under twelve. She became Nora Webster, she could not get beyond her grief to realise that her children were also grieving and needed her help and support. You may think this is perfectly understandable but from a child’s point of view it is not.

I always think it is illuminating to see the world from someone else’s point of view and surely this is what reading is all about. So I was interested to see what other readers thought of the book so I scrolled through the reviews.

John Goddard obviously did not agree with me:

Nora Webster's grief is at the heart of this remarkable narrative, or rather the way in which she rebuilds her life and finds a new sense of identity as a result of grief and loss. Some have described this book as dreary, and it is true that it is hardly a bundle of laughs, but actually the humdrum nature of her life makes the courage and resilience she shows shine more brightly. We see a transformation take place – a resurrection – that is simple yet profound.

In a way I’m glad he took pity on Nora Webster – I suppose someone had to! Maybe, after reading his review, I can begin to have a little sympathy for Mrs Webster.

I had a look in the 3 star reviews and saw that some people did agree with me though, like Rugrat30. He noted how Nora Webster alienated her children. On the whole though I would have to say that I think myself and Rugrat30 are in the minority:

It's a sad topic. It's a story about how a widow copes with life after the death of her husband. And she pretty much doesn't cope very well. Alienating her children and family.

Knowing what I know now would I still read Nora Webster? Absolutely. I love books that take som​ething very ordinary and make it extraordinary, especially Irish books, and that is what Mr Toibin does.

If you have read Nora Webster I’d love to know what you thought of the book. Tweet me here or send me a message!


Up to now, Nora Webster has 461 reviews and an average of 4 stars. If you wish to read more reviews or buy the book click here.

If you’d like to read more about Colm Toibin and his work visit Colm Tobin’s website here.

Also have a look at my blog – How to Make Fictional Characters Feel at Home – about how I once attended a works shop run by Colm Toibin, when I was an aspiring writer, and the valuable lessons I learnt about placing characters.

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