Tag Archives: Ireland

Nora Webster: Unflinching (Lessons in appreciating unlikeable characters)

grumpy-catThere are no cats in Colm Tóibín’s Nora Webster. But there is an awful lot of grumpiness. My cat, Titus, makes this sound (I call it playing her like an accordion) when properly prompted, that sounds much like the titular protagonist, like this: *harumph, grump, grump, grump *harumph, grump grump grump

Oh sure, Nora has many good reasons for being a total grump: her husband dies, she’s left to raise four difficult (and well drawn) children, she has to scramble to earn a salary after years of being comfortably supported, in making the salary she has to give up reading for fun, she’s a Catholic sorting out Irish politics. And then, what seems to pain Nora the most is having to rely on others. No, she doesn’t have to actually ask anyone for help, but perhaps just as bad (worse?) she has to accept help that’s offered to her. She’s entirely self-interested and self-obsessed, convinced always that other people are judging her appearance, her spending habits, her parenting style, her grief. For instance, when her daughter goes missing she spends as much time wondering how others will view her reaction as she does worrying about where Aine might be.A self-interest that raises challenging questions about the role of a parent. She rationalizes that her indifference or purposeful silence in response to the obvious needs of her children spares her children humiliation or more pain; the reader is left to wonder whether this silence is yet further evidence of her selfishness in that she doesn’t engage their pain because she’s too busy thinking about her own. To what extent must parents subsume their own feelings to protect/respond to/engage the feelings of their children?

Is it a pleasure to read such a grumpy-grump character? Well, it’s as much pleasure as it is to play Titus like an accordion. A kind of voyeuristic enthusiasm for seeing someone else get it all so perfectly wrong. Someone who could have more friends, greater satisfaction from her relationships, more confidence and comfort in her own skin, but who… doesn’t. Elects not to. Or does she? I suppose it’s not a conscious choice for Nora. She sees it all as put on her. The judgement of others. The circumstances of her life.

When she does make choices – to take singing lessons or to decorate her living room – these choices are couched as concessions to others. She’s not doing these things for her own pleasure or enjoyment, but rather to satisfy others (her singing teacher, her children).  No escaping the guilt.

It makes for a somewhat claustrophobic read. All the same, it’s a fascinating character study and a triumph of writing when this reader stayed with the rather wholly unpleasant Nora and continued to hope she’d do something surprising (like smile) (or care for someone else) while knowing that the book is a reminder that as readers we make unrealistic demands of authors. We expect likeable characters. We ask for a character development that will make our characters better, more heroic, more likeable. What Tobin presents instead is a rich character, who does develop over the novel, but becomes no more heroic, no more noble or likeable. She remains reproachable, unpleasant and grumpy. And instead of complaining about how frustrating and sad (and grumpy) she is, this reader was thankful for the long and deep engagement with the unlikeable.

And because I’m such a delight to be around myself, it was a chance to embody and empathize with the deeply flawed and unpleasant of the world.

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A Star Called Henry: Marvellous

*You should*

I read historical fiction because I love the careful (and sometimes casual) intersection of the factual and the imagined, the playful ways these two imagined-as-discrete categories reveal one another to be permeable and fluid. The ways I learn the traditional historical timeline – the IRA formed in these years under these leaders with these goals – as well as the ahistorical lessons of any good fiction – the cruelties of income inequality, sacrifices of parents for their children, the transient/eternal commitment of lovers. A balance between these two elements – the history lesson and the human lesson – can be tricky to achieve. So much historical fiction becomes unreadable as it tries to force an independently brilliant narrative onto the historical lesson it wants to teach; similarly, the stories that miss the opportunity to tell a resonant story in the peculiar (misguided?) commitment to telling it Just The Way It Was.

Roddy Doyle’s *A Star Called Henry* is perfect historical fiction. It imagines an unsung hero of Irish history and gives him a biography, a set of triumphs and losses, a grand and history-making ending — even though he never existed and isn’t “real” by any historian’s estimation. It’s perfect in that Henry’s biography – that of a homeless orphan who becomes a larger-than-life myth – depends on fiction and myth for its making (metafiction!) just as the novel relies on the imagined to tell its truer-than-truth story of Irish history.

And what a story. Like my understanding of Russian history I had previously wandered about in an embarrassed ignorance of Irish history hoping I’d never be in a circumstance when I’d have to expose how very little I knew. I knew that the IRA was a thing. That “the troubles” existed. Bombs had exploded, etc. But why? when did it start? who cares? Well *A Star Called Henry* gives this history through Henry in a way that makes it personal, non-partisan and engrossing.

My one complaint comes in what/who gets lost in this story. Henry’s mother, Melody, figures as the tragic figure of the Irish underclass. Lost because of the triumvirate of poverty: inadequate housing, nutrition and health care. Henry, who takes to an independent life on the streets at age four loses his mother and that’s the end of her story. At that point in the novel she becomes the functional symbol of loss and grief for Henry. Likewise his wife – first name unknown – is an independent, fierce and unstoppable woman in her own right, but we know her only through her relation to Henry. I appreciate the narration that makes this Henry’s story, I do. And perhaps its a testament to the strength of these characters and this novel that I wanted more of these secondary characters. I wanted their narratives as full as Henry’s – even though his is a patchy work of missing periods and jumped chronology.

Though having poked around I see that *A Star Called Henry* is but the first novel in a triology. So perhaps this complaint gets redressed in the later two novels. I’ll definitely be reading them, so will let you know. In fact, I’m embarrassed both by my scant knowledge of Irish history and that this is the first book by Roddy Doyle I’ve read. He’s brilliant. Really. And this book, well, I do think it’s historical fiction perfection. So there.

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