Book Review – Nora by Nuala O’Connor

Book Review – Nora by Nuala O’Connor

Nora: A Love Story of Nora Barnacle and James Joyce by Nuala O’Connor is a life story – the life that Nora and ‘her Jim’ shared from their ‘first time to walk out together’ on June 16th 1904 – propelled along by the deep love that they held for each other, despite the many hardships that they faced.

O’Connor is no stranger to reimagining, and breathing new life into, the stories of intriguing women from history; Becoming Belle is based on the true story of the unstoppable Isabel Bilton, a woman ahead of her time in Victorian London; while Miss Emily reimagines the private life of Emily Dickinson, one of America’s most beloved poets, through her own voice and through the eyes of her family’s Irish maid.

With Nora, O’Connor is turning her eyes back to Ireland, where this love story begins; but, before long, we find ourselves swept across the cities of Europe, as Nora and Jim chase false or short-lived opportunities for stability and prosperity through his career as a writer and teacher.

Nora, originally from Galway, meets Jim in Dublin, when she is working as a chambermaid at a local hotel and Jim has returned from studies in Paris. The chemistry between them is instantaneous. Suffice to say that the novel opens with a bang, telling us a lot about their early relationship and setting the scene for themes which are to be further developed as the chapters go on: the passionate and sensual nature of their relationship (inspired by the erotic love letters sent to Nora by Joyce), Jim’s inimitably poetic way with words, and Nora’s wit and own lively use of language, which was to inspire and infiltrate some of his writing.

Before long, we learn of Jim’s disdain for Ireland, his sense that his home country is holding him back from greater things. Swept along by the waves of passion, it takes little persuasion for Nora to leave Ireland with Jim, heading first to Zurich, with the promise of a teaching job there. This job turns out to be a false lead, and so begins their journey pin-balling from place to place in search of stability, and a place to call home. Charting and exploring their love story, from the early heady days of lust and romance, right through until their long journey together ends, O’Connor brings this highly passionate couple to life, in this sweeping portrayal of the fiery love between them as they struggle to make ends meet; we see the strain that this constant struggle, and Jim’s reckless behaviour, puts on their relationship, the many broken promises Jim faces in his endeavours to get published, the challenges they both face to their health, and the difficult family dynamics that develop once their children arrive. Yet, through it all, their love for each other, at its essence, never wavers.

In Nora, O’Connor has developed a charismatic and fully-rounded narrator. The opening chapter shows her to be passionate, self-assured and witty in her encounters with Jim; and yet soon we see that she is also not unaware of her vulnerability. She feels so passionately about him, and is in awe of him, but also harbours insecurities regarding her position with him, and what kind of life she will have with him. As the story unfolds, O’Connor explores these concerns, deftly reimagining the lows of worry, frustration and self-doubt experienced by Nora, balanced by the highs of a love which runs deep; building and shaping a distinctive voice for Nora, which is rich in depth, emotion and powers of observation.

While this book is a celebration of Nora, the figure of Jame Joyce inevitably looms large throughout the story. He is shown to be a very dependent and self-centered figure; depending on the praise, reassurance, and financial assistance of others. Their existence for much of the story is hand-to-mouth, Jim often scurrying away to unknown places, only to return triumphantly waving some cash in the air that will get them through the coming days. We see a cast of supporting figures, including Jim’s long-suffering brother Stannie, benefactors such as the ever-patient Harriet Weaver, his eventual key publisher Sylvia Beach, friends they make in the various cities they live in who help them out, and Jim’s sisters who come over from Ireland to be companion and help for Nora after the birth of Lucia; all these people seem to go above and beyond to help Jim and Nora; but no-one supports Jim more than Nora herself. For all the literary giant that Jim was, we come to understand – through his words, the words of others and events that unfold – that he wouldn’t have been half that giant without Nora at his side.

Despite their differences, they are both characters of certain extremes. Jim the tortured artist, not wanting to be bound by country, marriage or steady job, is either wildly prolific, happy and upbeat, or despairing and unable to do anything. Nora is equally passionate and fiery, swaying between being madly in love with Jim, and madly annoyed by his erratic and irresponsible behaviour. Yet some part of her, no doubt fueled by her deep love for him, and pride in him, is resigned, accepting, even understanding. Speaking to Clotilde, one of the few good friends Nora makes throughout the years, she says, when confronted with some of Jim’s more dubious behaviour, “This is the way it is, Clotilde: Jim needs stimulation in order to write. I’ve had to learn this over the years”, before reflecting to herself that she is ‘used to him and tormented by him and in love with him, all three.’

However, Nora does crave stability. As they move from one place to the next in search of better opportunities, Nora is lonely. While Jim craves the more external constant of prosperity, and adulation from the support circle he depends on for his writing and life of leisure, Nora craves the more internal comforting stability of companionship, a place to make home, and being able to plan ahead, rather than living from day to day. The differences between them are both the making and the testing of this love story; if she is his rock that supports him and anchors him throughout his unpredictable writer’s career, then he is the sea that washes over her, enveloping her in his love and his need for her love, inevitably driving her onward.

Ulysses is mentioned occasionally from early on, but it’s really from around the second half of the book that we get a better sense of the creation, and then the reception, of one of the most famous literary works of modern literature. While it finally brings them some prosperity, it also brings its problems. We see the fickle nature of literary circles of the time; certain friends come and go, and certain support wavers with the changing socio-political climate, and the spreading of rumours about Jim’s drinking habits. Given her other novels, O’Connor evidently has a strong interest in historical research. In Nora, the feeling of the time is beautifully painted by smaller details of life on the continent. It’s the minor details of domestic and social life, rather than the broader historical picture, that seem to interest O’Connor the most, although occasional references are made to the wider historical context of the time.

With the first half of the book largely about Nora and Jim’s insatiable and all-consuming relationship, the introduction of the children shifts this balance slightly, rendering them responsible for something outside themselves and his work. While the children are still young, Jim and Nora often continue to live recklessly, for the moment; sometimes leaving their young children alone while they go out to social occasions; sometimes going hungry but buying drinks for themselves and getting sweet treats for the children. Jim continues to soak up the love of his family through his children, rearing them with his heart and assuming the role of the peacekeeper, therefore mostly remaining a shining light in their eyes; while Nora (eventually) assumes the role of disciplinarian, approaching their rearing from a more practical, conventional and concerned approach, subsequently often drawing their ire. This shift in Nora’s life affords O’Connor the opportunity to explore Nora’s maturing voice, and the maternal instincts that emerge; concerns regarding stability, social standing and the desire to live a life of small luxuries turn to struggles with the guilt of motherhood, concern for her children, and concern regarding their status as a family unit headed by unmarried parents.

While the early years as a mother to Giorgio bring Nora a lot of happiness, we see the troubles with Lucia begin when she is young, and Nora’s difficult relationship with Lucia is to be one of the saddest parts of the whole story; what begins as a sense that she is simply a spirited and introverted little child, often lost in her own thoughts, turns to a more heightened concern as her behaviour becomes more erratic and troubling. Observing Lucia and her unusual behaviour, Nora wonders if Lucia is happy, to which Jim responds, “People were not made to be happy, Gooseen, they were made to attempt things.” A response which sums up in a way Jim’s whole approach to existence. The pursuit of greatness and artistic fulfillment, for much of their life together, comes before basic stability and happiness. Jim’s mounting success, as his writing begins to gain recognition, is paralleled and contrasted with Lucia’s growing psychological troubles; a stylistic feature which serves to build the momentum at this point in the story.

O’Connor has a beautiful, lively way of writing; capturing perfectly the very different grasps that both Nora and Jim had on language. Nora in her earthy, colloquial and witty way; Jim in his intellectualised and poetic way. Nora went to live with her grandmother at a young age, and a beautiful early chapter titled ‘Goose’ (Gooseen is to become Jim’s pet name for Nora) explores how storytelling was in her blood, her grandmother spinning tales for her at any opportunity, including a magical story about where Nora came from. This celebration of language from two perspectives is a part of what makes this novel so compelling and so dynamic.

The chapters are short, titled according to pivotal events or themes they capture, and subtitled according to date and place. This gives them an almost diary-like feel; reinforcing the sense that we are being afforded an intimate and heightened glimpse at pivotal moments in Nora and Jim’s story, which contributed to the shaping of the trajectory of their journey together. This also points to an emphasis on the importance of place to this story; how the places Nora and Jim came from shaped them, the push and pull relationship they have with Ireland and their families, how Nora never seems to feel at home anywhere and, just when she is starting to feel settled, they are upended again; and, above all, how any place can become some kind of home as long as they are together. 

Nora is the chosen book for One Dublin One Book 2022, happening as always in April, and will no doubt instigate some very interesting discussion.

In a year where James Joyce and Ulysses will dominate, it will be extra meaningful to have this poignant account of their love story bringing an alternate, and essential, perspective to the table.

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Nora is available for purchase directly from publishers New Island, or by supporting your favourite local bookshop, and will also be available to borrow from public libraries nationwide as part of the One Dublin One Book initiative.

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Nuala O’Connor was born in Dublin but now lives in Galway. She has written novels, short stories, poetry and flash fiction, and is editor at flash e-zine Splonk. Full bio and further details on her work to date available at her website.

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