My first New York Times review today and it’s for my beloved NORA. Big thanks to Alida Becker. I’ve pasted the entire thing in below; a swift flavour though: ‘…Nora is entirely convincing in her raw sensuality, her stubborn determination, her powerful sense of grievance.’ Very pleased 🙂
NEW YORK TIMES – 16th March 2021
Three Historical Novels Explore the Strength of Human Connection – Alida Becker
“Messy” doesn’t begin to describe the domestic life of the narrator of Nuala O’Connor’s NORA (Harper Perennial, 458 pp., paper, $16.99), the minimally educated, relentlessly blue-collar woman who propped up one of literature’s most challenging highbrow writers, James Joyce. There are times when you wonder whether the real Nora Barnacle would have been quite so articulate (“he’s also a bother to my heart and a conundrum to my mind”), but this fictional Nora is entirely convincing in her raw sensuality, her stubborn determination, her powerful sense of grievance and her inability to stop loving a deeply erratic, wildly manipulative yet enormously talented man.
You won’t find much about Joyce’s works in Nora’s account of his torturous climb from poverty-stricken anonymity to professional acclaim. (“Portrait of the Artist” comes off as “strings of baby babble” to someone who prefers “penny dreadfuls and romances.”) You will, however, be given an intimate look at the struggle that made Joyce’s work possible as Nora describes how she followed along when he fled Ireland for dead-end jobs in Switzerland and Italy, watched him waste his paychecks on carousing while she took in washing for grocery money, and let herself become far too reliant on his long-suffering brother after the Joyce entourage grew to include a son and a daughter.
Set against all this, Nora’s small triumphs loom large. In Paris in 1925, two decades after she first “walked out” with Joyce, the now-middle-aged Nora proudly announces that “at last I have a home to call my own and furniture besides.” Her money worries may be gone, but now there are worries about her children, particularly Lucia, with that “skittery-skattery look” in her eyes, who will eventually be diagnosed as schizophrenic and confined to a mental hospital. Even Nora’s uterine cancer (“the doctor now says the whole lot has to come out”) and Joyce’s glaucoma (“the eyes are murder; 10 operations later and it’s worse they get”) can’t distract her from a terrible sense of guilt: “How can I tell him that between us we may have made our daughter mad?”
Alida Becker is a former editor at the Book Review.
The Historical Novels Review has reviewed NORA today and it’s a goody. It’s here, but I’ve also pasted the text in below. Big thanks to Trish Macenulty.
Nora: A Love Story of Nora and James Joyce
In light of Brenda Maddox’s brilliant and exhaustive biography of Nora Barnacle—wife and muse of the writer James Joyce—and the 2000 film, Nora, about the couple’s relationship, a novel of Nora’s life might seem redundant or unnecessary. It isn’t. In fact, Nora by Nuala O’Connor is marvelous. Of course, by delving into Nora’s life, O’Connor must also write about one of the great geniuses of the English language. This would be dangerous territory for a lesser writer, but O’Connor has the literary chops to get the job done. Her lyrical style and Irish colloquialisms capture the essence of their feelings for each other as well for their home country. In Nora’s voice, she tells us, “Jim says I am harp and shamrock, tribe and queen. I am high cross and crowned heart, held between two hands.”
The novel begins on Bloomsday (June 16) in 1904 with an early sexual encounter between the ever-lusty couple. From there we follow the peripatetic wanderings of the pair as they travel from Dublin to Trieste to Zurich to Paris and back to Zurich. Along the way they have children, live (and fight) with Joyce’s siblings, and make friends and enemies across the continent, surviving hand-to-mouth one day and high-on-the-hog the next. They endure wars, illnesses, and madness. None of it is easy. Joyce drinks too much. He flirts with other women. He falsely accuses Nora of betrayal. But throughout all their travails, a powerful bond persists, as does Joyce’s passion for his art. O’Connor shows us just how integral Nora was to Joyce’s writing and to his success, and one comes away from this book with the sense that without Nora Barnacle, there would be no James Joyce.
A lovely review today for NORA from the Midwest Book Review in the USA:
‘An historical novel but one that pays scrupulous attention to biographically accurate detail, Nora: A Love Story of Nora and James Joyce by author Nuala O’Connor deftly blends elements of love, ambition, and extraordinary people with extraordinary talents with the kind of narrative storytelling style that creates great and enduringly memorable fiction.’
Drew Gallagher has reviewed NORA for the Free Lance-Star in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Big thanks to him. I pasted the whole text below as GDPR blocks the link to those of us in Europe.
Book review: ‘Nora’ a serene, worthy addition to Joyce canon By DREW GALLAGHER FOR THE FREE LANCE–STAR Jan 9, 2021
What author Nuala O’Connor attempts in her novel “Nora” may be considered sacrilege by some. What she achieves is serene.
“Nora” is a literary biography of Nora Barnacle Joyce, the lover and wife of Irish author James Joyce and the inspiration for Molly Bloom in Joyce’s masterpiece “Ulysses.” Where the sacrilege might come in is in O’Connor’s first chapter, where she describes the first date of Nora and James in graphic and satisfying detail. To attempt to re-create the date that birthed its own holiday, Bloomsday, and was the impetus for what many consider to be the greatest novel of all time with the most salacious soliloquy of all-time is a fool’s errand, and for those who worship at the Joycean altar a form of heresy. And at the risk of upsetting the Joyceans further, I defy them to read the first chapter of “Nora” and not be enraptured and more than a little titillated.
O’Connor’s mastery is not limited to the first chapter, and she is able to tug emotion from the novel’s closing chapters where, in truth, there should be none. As with all literary biographies, we already know how the story ends, and it is unrealistic to want a biographical novel on the life of James Joyce to not end with his death, but when his sudden demise arrives, it is gut-wrenching through Nora’s loving eyes and leaves the reader staggered.
Nora and James are one of the great couples in literature, and this is underscored when Hemingway makes an appearance in Paris and quickly discards a wife for a new beau. The Joyces are not without trials and temptations, because before he was James Joyce, he was nothing more than a gifted writer trying to earn enough money from teaching to allow him to write on the side. Nora is jealous of James’ fondness for some of his students, but it is the statuesque Nora whose suitors, including James’ brother Stannie, are more direct in their intentions.
Following James’ peripatetic life through Europe and in search of money and drink can get tedious, but O’Connor elevates the reader above the mundane, which was the normal for the Joyces until the publication of “A Portrait of a Writer As a Young Man.” Ultimately, “Ulysses” freed them from having to stiff landlords for rent and opened them to Parisian society without concerns for food or dress. For the prodigal son of Ireland, Joyce spent most of his life elsewhere.
As with any work on Joyce, the ultimate question is whether or not “Nora” is a worthy addition to the Joyce canon. As Molly Bloom, the flower of the mountain, would say, “Yes.”