It seems apt that Colm Tóibín should have written a novel with an eponymous heroine. Such novels often unfasten their central characters from the worlds they inhabit (think of Clarissa or Anna Karenina), establishing a kind of literary isolation that belies social or familial ties. Tóibín has always excelled in writing about this type of loneliness: The Master, his fictional portrayal of Henry James, set the great novelist’s emotional restraint against his imaginative liberty; the heroine of Brooklyn, Eilis Lacey, was characterised by a strange emotional detachment that persisted through her personal relationships and intimacies.
Perhaps none of Tóibín’s protagonists has approached the pathos of Nora Webster, widowed in her forties and, when we meet her six months after the event, still mourning the death of her husband, Maurice. Living in a small town near Wexford in the late 1960s, Nora is surrounded by family