Hidden away under the heading, “Essays,” on Cólm Tóibín’s website (colmtoibin.com*) is a short story, ‘House for Sale’ written in 2000 and first published in the Dublin Review. The writing is stark, bald, and intriguingly formal. It is very different from ‘The Master’, his 2004 novel about Henry James and his second time on the Man-Booker Prize short list. The short story is simple: a recent widow decides to sell a summer house. It opens with the grieving widow visited by an inquisitive neighbour, “May Lacey, wisps of thin grey hair appearing from under her hat, her scarf still around her neck.” May Lacey in her attempt to console but not knowing how chatters away about herself and her daughter who has recently left Ireland for New York. This sounds familiar; and you realize that this is the germ of an idea that became Tóibín’s 2009 novel, “Brooklyn”, about Ellis Lacey, May’s daughter, and her immigration to New York. (The film, co-written by Tóibín and Nick Hornby, is due for release in 2015)
The story seems like a Tóibín experiment; an experiment with language. How far can you pare back a text but still make the story engaging? is the question he seems to be asking himself; and the answer? A lot.
‘House for Sale’ is not a short story at all; it is Chapter One of Tóibín’s latest novel, ‘Nora Webster’ (Scribner; and the Penguin audio book is read by Fiona Shaw).
After the rich Jamesian prose of ‘The Master’, and the narrative-based ‘Brooklyn’, Tóibín has returned to that idea from 2000 and has obviously decided that his little experiment was a success. In fact he takes it further.
“Nora was surprised to see that while Fiona was trying to smile, there were tears in her eyes. She had not cried at Maurice’s funeral, just remained silent, staying close to her sister and her aunts, but Nora could sense what she felt all the more because she did nothing to show it. Nora did not know what she should say to her now. She sipped her coffee. The boys did not move or speak.”
There is a formality of language, a sparseness and simplicity of words: simple sentences; “She sipped her coffee. The boys did not move or speak.”
He combines this sparsity with detail, internal detail, “…Nora could sense what she felt all the more because she did nothing to show it.” This is where the plot is: internally.
“When Nora saw Nancy Brophy walking towards the house, she moved away from the window. She could not think why Nancy would want to call on her. She imagined leaving Nancy to knock and wait and listen, and then knock again before walking down the steps, turning to check the windows for a sign of life. She could feel the sheer relief that would come over her entire spirit if she had the courage to make this happen.”
This language is simple but authoritative; authoritative because Tóibín doesn’t use contractions: no “can’t”, no “they’re”, no “couldn’t”, but “can not”, “they are”, and “could not”. This grammatical formality creates this authoritative, formal tone and the lack of adjectives, only two in the above quote, and short stark sentences give his authority a sense of knowingness. These simple, blunt revelations about internal feelings and motives makes the action sharp and intriguing even if the external plot is everyday and unsensational.
There is only one difference from the short story ‘House for Sale’ and Chapter
One of ‘Nora Webster’: in the latter Nora’s eldest son has become a stutterer.
Nora’s two young boys, Donal, and Conor, stayed with her aunt, Josie, while their father, Maurice, was dying. When Josie comes to visit, the boys are distant and Josie won’t stop talking. That same evening Donal, the stutterer, has a nightmare. Nora wonders that something must have happened when the boys were staying with their aunt. She goes alone to visit the aunt to ask. This simple act of motherly concern is full of expectancy. The reader is interested not just in what might be found out but how Nora will ask the question. It sets the scene for a dramatic family revelation and possible confrontation. Nora doesn’t know either what she will say; she asks rather bluntly but Josie’s reply is also blunt. Nothing staggering happens: our expectations of drama are thwarted. The boys missed their mother. Conor started to wet the bed and Donal started stuttering. Understandable given the circumstances: a dying father, an absent mother and in the care of a distant lonely aunt. This creation of internal intrigue in the everyday is one of Tóibín’s greatest gifts to storytelling, although Tóibín himself denies the label ‘storyteller’. The reader cares about what happens, and wonders what might. These characters are cared about, wondered over; and this with Tóibín describing nothing about anyone’s appearance; and if he does describe someone it is brief and trivial: in fact May Lacey, the minor character, in chapter one is the only character described at all, and then only in terms of wispy hair from under a hat and an unwound scarf.
This stark, description-less prose of character and place is an acknowledgement to the contribution of the reader to fulfil such an artistic endeavour as this: us readers supply the detail. The lonely unmarried aunt looks like our lonely unmarried aunt; a television lounge of a hotel looks like the television lounge you went into once when you were a child. Students of Reader Theory will take heart at this.
Nora Webster is selfish, snobby, and aloof but you love her for her courage and her eventual belief in herself; you admire her for realizing that the death of her beloved husband, Maurice, has changed her for the better. She blossoms without dishonouring the love of her life or his memory. This is grief, good grief, and although this is fiction, Tóibín has taught us something true. It could be argued that this is a great book as many others have said; a book that may finally give him the Man-Booker; a prize he so richly deserves and has been so close to, three times.
Now, Tóibín, after three books about women, ‘Brooklyn’, ‘The Testament of Mary’, and ‘Nora Webster’ is writing a book about a man.
*Be careful when you spell Cólm Tóibín; if you leave out the first ‘i’ you’ll discover Cólm Tobin, a very different person whose comical homepage recognizes he’s one letter away from fame.