I've been reading Station Eleven, no, reading isn't quite the right word. Devouring the story is more like it. But the pace is indeed relentless as a few of you have said. It's not just the pace but the subject matter. As much as I want to read the book (I don't want to put it down), it is sort of creeping me out. I love suspenseful novels, but it has been a long time since I have read one that is truly suspenseful like this one. But it isn't Station Eleven that I want to write about today. As much as I love the book, I do need an occasional breather. I need a reminder that there is a nice world out there that is not lawless and broken (at least in the way that it is broken in the story), and so what better reading alternative than Colm Tóibín's Nora Webster.
I've not really read much by Tóibín but I have tasted his prose and like it very much. I forgot how quietly gorgeous his writing is--not just the writing but the story. Whereas the Mandel is like a mad dash (and there is much to be said about those, so that is not meant as a criticism), Tóibín is quite stately in his storytelling, which is also meant as a compliment. The Mandel is a cold drink of water on a hot summer's day, and the Tóibín is a fine, rich wine to be savored and sipped.
I'm only a few chapters in, so there is still a lot to learn about her and her situation, but I can already tell Nora Webster is a woman after my own heart. She is someone who likes peace and enjoys a certain solitude as well. From the first page the reader is introduced to her living situation. She is a new widow, her husband not long buried. A mother of two young sons still at home and two elder daughters who have left home for school and college, Nora is tired of the endless visitors who come to offer their condolences and their advice. Neither are much appreciated really.
This is small town, 1950s Ireland and Nora is expected to act a certain way. It wouldn't do for her to be rude to her neighbors no matter how she longs to shut the door in their faces. I can tell, or at least I hope, that she is going to find a way to live her life on her own terms and the story spread out ahead of me is going to be a pleasure to read as I watch her 'remake' herself. So a few teasers to form an image of Nora in your minds.
This first one is about a meeting with her daughter in Dublin:
"She [her daughter Fiona] did not have to get the train back to the town where everybody knew about her and all the years ahead were mapped out for her."
* * *
And when she returns home from that visit:
"In the future, once the boys went to bed, she might have the house to herself more often. She would learn how to spend these hours. In the peace of these winter evenings, she would work out how she was going to live."
* * *
"Nora found herself wondering if there was somewhere she could go, if there was a town, or a part of Dublin, with a house like this one, a modest semi-detached house on a road lined with trees, where no one could visit them and they could be alone there, all three of them. And then she found her mind moving towards the next thought--that the possibility of such a place, such a house, would include the idea that what had happened could be erased, that the burden that was on her now could be lifted, that the past could be restored and could make its way effortlessly into a painless present."
It's funny to think that I am reading two such strikingly different books but I like them equally well and for such different reasons. And both, quiet or not at all, are for me such wonderful page turners.
* * * * * *
There is obviously a strong tradition in Irish Literature for beautiful prose and quietly devastating stories. At least that has been my experience during my reading this past weekend. I have also been dipping into Claire Keegan's short story collection Walk the Blue Fields. I think I will finish reading this book as well. Why read just one story? Here's what Colm Tóibín has to say about her:
"These stories are pure magic. They add, using grace, intelligence, and an extraordinary ear for rhythm, to the distinguished tradition of the Irish short story. They . . . have a sort of timeless edge to them, making Claire Keegan both an original and a canonical presence in Irish fiction."
I've read the first two stories in the collection and am preparing to dive into the third. I used the word devastatingly and after reading that first story it seemed quite apt. In "The Parting Gift" a young woman is preparing to leave Ireland for New York. The story is told in second person, the narrator referring to herself as 'you'. It seems a wise choice keeping the character at arm's length, almost as if she is looking down on herself from above and you wonder about her and how she has managed and how she will end up. I won't tell you her situation, but here are two little references that will give you a hint of her life:
"She [the young woman's mother] waves a cowardly little wave, and you wonder if she will ever forgive you for leaving her there with her husband."
* * *
"And now you suddenly remember one good thing about your father."
In "Walk the Blue Fields" a priest narrates a story of lost love, or maybe not lost so much as a love denied or turned down.
"Lately, when he has prayed, his prayers have not been answered. Where is God? Not, what is God? he does not mind not knowing God. His faith has not faltered--that's what's strange--but he wishes God would show himself. All he wants is a sign. Some nights he gets down on his knees when the housekeeper is gone and the curtains are pulled tight across the windows and prays to God to show him how to be a priest."
* * *
"It was one of those nights that he felt the impossibility of being alone."
Why am I so drawn to stories tinged with just a little bit of melancholy. And stories that both celebrate solitude yet dread the idea of being alone. Oh, and m digital copy of the New Yorker has been uploaded and this week's story is by Colm Tóibín as well. I have taken a peek (why does it feel like cheating to read it now rather than save it for the end of the week--sort of a treat after work?) and I think I am going to like it as much as Nora Webster.
Happy St. Patrick's Day. I hope your days is filled with good stories, too.