From Nora Webster to Eilis Lacey, the novelist Colm Tóibín has a knack for creating compelling female characters. Writing exclusively for Women on the Page, Penguin Editor Mary Mount tells us why.
Early in Colm Tóibín’s new novel, Nora Webster, Tóibín’s eponymous heroine goes to have her hair done at the local hairdressers in the small town where she has lived all her married life. Her beloved husband, Maurice, has died six months earlier. As Nora emerges from the hairdresser’s, with a hairstyle, she realises, ‘of a much younger woman’ she immediately feels terribly exposed and regrets what she’s done. She is desperate to get home as quickly as possible and prays she won’t meet people in the street who would, ‘deplore the idea that, with her husband six months in the grave, she had dyed her hair a colour it had never been before.’
The humiliation of sporting a new hairdo in front of the neighbours is something many of us have experienced and at first it might seem an inconsequential detail both in the long life of a woman and in the context of a novel. Yet the scene says so much about the new life that Nora must inhabit and, in a larger sense, it shows Colm Tóibín’s extraordinary talent for characterisation, the way he is able to really get under the skin of his characters and, in particular, of the women in his novels. It also shows why details like this matter: through these two pages we see the world through Nora’s eyes, the sense of how alone she feels, how raw and new the surroundings must seem to this character unmoored by loss.
In a recent interview Colm said something along the lines of, ‘there’s nothing worse for a family to have a novelist growing up in the house.’ He described an image of himself as a boy, sitting in silence in the corner of the room just observing, taking in his mother’s conversations and the comings and goings of family life. In all of his fiction you can feel that sense of the silent observer, absorbing every detail and trying to enter the spirit of lives very different from his own.
From his depiction of Eilis Lacey’s divided loyalties in Brooklyn, or the vulnerability of Mary in The Testament of Mary, the emotional truth of Colm Tóibín’s female characters is one of the reasons why he is such a rare writer and why his novels are so beloved.
Listen… to an exclusive interview with the actress Fiona Shaw on her experience of performing Colm Tóibín’s characters here.
Colm Tóibín’s Nora Webster (Penguin) is available now. Listen to an extract of Nora Webster, read by Fiona Shaw, here.
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