Nora Webster is an Irish widow. She lives in Wexford during the early days of “The Troubles.” Her longtime husband has died. She is left to raise four children on her own with few skills and difficulty maintaining relationships. But she courageously navigated it all. Life went on.
Nora’s fictional, the protagonist in a book by Colm Tóibín. Charlie Brice, a friend I trust to lead me in the right literary direction, recommended the book. He warned me the hard part is first 50 of its 373 pages.
Charlie’s an accomplished poet. He grew up in Cheyenne, attending St. Mary’s. During Viet Nam he found his voice. He was thoughtful enough about the world around him to become a conscientious objector. Charlie and his wife now live in Pittsburgh. Many of his poems are found in major national publications. This is one about his friend Phil Druker.
His Voice ~ for Phil Druker
Tea warms my throat, brings belonging grounding
the sense of home-- but does Phil, dying of cancer, feel this?
Does a man loosed by morphine know or care
about the pleasures of home? Or is he leaving home waiting
to abandon that alluvial gobbet called “I,”
that rickety shack of self once strong and stark
now disappearing like the shimmer
from a highway baking in the sun?
The countdown the march beating drum down
of a ticking clock thread that leaves the spool bare.
We hadn’t spoken for forty years.
Now his voice isn’t his own, but a timbre
of unimaginable suffering:
the sonorous dissonance of anti-nausea meds--
no longer his voice, but that voice.
Reading “His Voice” I understood why Charlie would be the one to recommend “Nora Webster.” Voice matters. Where we get our voice and how we choose to use it matter. Nora relied on her husband’s voice until it was, like Phil Druker’s, silenced. Then she found a voice that had been there all along. Her own.
Readers and writers alike are accustomed to stories that follow an accepted formula. The formula says each must have characters, a setting, a plot, conflict, and resolution of the conflict. That’s what makes a story a story. But lives, our lives, are not formulized.
I couldn’t put Tóibín’s book aside though I couldn’t say why. This male writer’s ability to convey an honest female voice was a part of it. But there was more. After reading it cover to cover, I then reflected on why the storyline had been so captivating.
And then it struck me. “Nora Webster” has but three of the five elements we expect in a story. It has characters, setting, and conflict. But her story has no plot and no resolution of the conflicts.
And neither do our lives.
We are much more like Nora Webster than any of the characters created by Dickens, Cervantes, or Hemingway. We live day-to-day dealing with what life sends our way. We aren’t helpless to affect those events but neither do we control them. We are born into families, communities, and cultures that largely determine who we are. We react to the joys and disasters that come our way.
Some of us deal with it by developing a faith in God. Others develop a fear of God. Families leave their marks on us for good and bad. Characters we encounter along the way and the settings in which we live determine the nature of the conflicts we experience. Some are resolved. Some never are. But there’s no larger plot to our lives. Just life. For most, that’s quite enough.
A New York Times book reviewer wrote poignantly, “The result (of Tóibín’s book) is a luminous, elliptical novel in which everyday life manages, in moments, to approach the mystical.”
Tóibín’s voice, like Nora Webster’s, Phil Drucker’s, Charlie Brice’s, you and I, is the voice we share as whatever force shaping our days “manages, in moments, to approach the mystical.” At that mystical moment, it becomes “no longer just our voice, but that voice.”