The critics seem to be lapping up Colm Tóibín’s new novel, just published by Viking at £18.99. Tessa Hadley, writing in the Guardian (October 11th), wastes no time in getting in with the superlatives: “Reading down the first page of Toíbín’s new novel, Nora Webster, I know that this novel is the real thing, rare and tremendous.”
Tóibín’s style is distinctive, she remarks, “though it’s the opposite of what is usually called ‘style’ – there is no exhibition of cleverness, or highly ornamented manner or any figurative or strenuously descriptive manner”.
The plainness of this prose has the same difficult scrupulousness as the most baroque good style; both are poles apart from the slapdash notation of a lazy shorthand. In less sure hands, these simplicities – one thing after another, after another – could become banal; ordinary life seems banal until it has gone, then it becomes the past and has extraordinary power to move us. This writer’s withholding – of commentary, of explication, of any verdict, on the life he renders – is so striking that it’s almost an inverted extravagance in itself. And the withholding is as intrinsic to the whole feel of the novel as the quality of light is intrinsic in a painting; it’s also part of the novel’s mimetic truth to life. There is no explication adequate to what has happened – a man is dead before his time, his family is stricken. If this experience has any meaning, it can only be opaque and deeply hidden; a writing that found its meaning easily would be suspect, fake. Yet every so often the novel’s austere reserve does crack open, and to powerful effect.
In The New York Times, Janet Maslin writes that “much of the book’s deceptively quiet drama has to do with Nora’s gradual, subtle reawakening … The last parts … are heartrendingly transcendent … Tóibín’s prose often has an elegant, visceral simplicity”. In the Financial Times, Christopher Tayler finds that the title character is drawn with “a characteristic blend of sympathy, ambivalence, historical clearsightedness and formal restraint”.