Writer Deborah Kalb interviewed me about NORA and writing it. You can read it here.
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.”
On 5th January 2021, to celebrate the USA launch day of NORA, I, along with fellow Irish author Eibhear Walshe – who wrote the wonderful The Last Days at Bowen’s Court about Elizabeth Bowen – did an online bio-fiction event with Columbia University, facilitated by scholar and author Heather Corbally Bryant.
The event is online now and you can view it on YouTube here.
All thanks to the gracious Emily Bloom of Columbia Uni for stellar organising.
The Irish Times includes Nora in its 2021 round-up today. The novel is in great company: new books soon from Danielle McLaughlin, Lisa McInerney, Laura McKenna and Úna Mannion, to name just a tiny few.
The Times says: ‘Nora (New Island, April) by Nuala O’Connor tells the love story of Nora Barnacle and James Joyce, an earthy and authentic love letter to Irish literature’s greatest muse. ‘
The Sunday Independent has included NORA in its Top Reads for 2021, which is rather lovely.
Despite the subheading above – about ‘taking advantage of lockdown’ – it’s doubtful any of the books on this list were written last year.
I finished writing NORA in early 2019, having started it in 2017, and since then it’s been through the editorial process with my agent; then with my editor, a sub editor, and a copy editor at Harper Collins in New York; then came the cover, blurbs, and jacket design choices; and the novel had another good old edit with New Island in Dublin after that. It also had a name-change along the way – I had originally called it Barnacle. It takes a long time to make a book, not the matter of a few months cited above.
This was a welcome surprise Christmas present from Vogue USA today!:
The Best Books to Read in 2021 – 25th Dec. 2020 – Vogue USA
In her fiction, Nuala O’Connor has often explored the private lives of historical figures; she did it in 2015’s Miss Emily, about Emily Dickinson, and in 2018’s Becoming Belle, about singer and dancer Belle Bilton. She takes the same approach in Nora, a long but lively portrait of James Joyce’s wife and muse, Nora Barnacle Joyce. His companion for 37 years (and the mother of both his children), Nora has long sat at the center of Joycian lore; she was the model for Ulysses’s Molly Bloom and, in her youthful trysts, inspired two characters in “The Dead.” With Nora, O’Connor leans into that context—as she does into Joyce’s famously filthy letters to his “wildflower of the hedges”—depicting a relationship as lousy with passion as it was with chaos. Joyce’s drinking and uselessness with money form a throughline, as do their constant moves between Italy, France, and Switzerland. (A poet as well as a novelist, O’Connor has a musical ear for language; Joyce and Nora never seem to lose their lilt.) Yes, literati like Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemingway, Samuel Beckett, and Sylvia Beach make requisite appearances, but Nora is principally the story of a Galway girl and her “Jim,” eking out some semblance of an existence far from home. —Marley Marius
The Boston Globe has reviewed my novel NORA today and it’s a good one, calling it ‘an exhaustive and often wildly engaging’. You can read it here. I’ve also pasted the full review text below.
Historical fiction reimagines the love between Joyce and his lifelong companion
Nora Barnacle may not have been an artist, but she had a genius for living that made her indispensable to her partner, James Joyce. One of the greatest writers of the 20th century, Joyce honored Barnacle, his lifelong companion and mother of his two children, by setting his masterwork “Ulysses” on June 16, 1904, the day they first “walked out together.” But as Irish writer Nuala O’Connor tells it in an exhaustive and often wildly engaging fictionalized biography, the full story of the Galway gal who traipsed after James as he wrote, drank, and intermittently worked his way across Europe is a tale of its own.
In “Nora: A Love Story of Nora and James Joyce,” O’Connor presents the young chambermaid as lusty and full of life when she meets the writer — who has returned to his hometown Dublin after a brief sojourn as a medical student in Paris — in the spring of 1904. O’Connor’s Barnacle narrates her impressions of that famous date — a.k.a. “Bloomsday” — with the kind of stream-of-consciousness impressions that would distinguish Joyce’s great works; her language is earthy and vivid. “The river smells like a pisspot spilling its muck into the sea,” she remarks, as the two stroll along the Liffey. Moments later, “our two mouths crash together and it’s all swollen tongues and drippy spit,” beginning the graphic sexual encounter that Joyce would later recall “made me a man,” related in a mix of slang and endearments that establishes Barnacle’s personality.
Her distinctive language is certainly evocative of her lover’s. But whether O’Connor is suggesting that Barnacle inspired Joyce, as some scholars argue, or the writer simply channeled a particular Irish sensibility, the author leaves to the reader. With a knowing wink, the author has Barnacle — who had little formal education — talking about her own discomfort with writing. “[W]ords don’t slide off my pen the way they do for him,” she says. Despite the Joycean phrasings, she seems to be saying that her role is to be his muse.Get HomeFront in your inboxThe Weekender is temporarily HomeFront, your guide to the best ways to stay entertained at home any day of the week.Sign Up
“To Jim, I am Ireland,” she says. More to the point, perhaps, her lover says, “‘you are syllable, word, sentence, phrase. You’re fat vowels and shushing sibilants.’ ‘Nora,’ Jim says, ‘you are story.’”
In some ways, the book’s opening scenes, drawn largely from O’Connor’s Granta magazine short story “Gooseen,” capture the relationship — the title is Joyce’s pet name for Barnacle — at its peak. “Gooseen,” which won the UK’s 2018 Short Fiction Prize, presents the new romance as all lust and promise, with the consequences yet to come. In the ensuing and frankly overlong novel, O’Connor explores those consequences, and her protagonist’s increasingly conflicted connection to the man she loves.
Things are not all downhill. But early on, there are intimations that life with Joyce will not be easy. He drinks and is plagued with the eye troubles — most likely glaucoma — that will leave him nearly blind. He is also unfaithful. And although O’Connor’s novel doesn’t pick up on the recent studies that suggest Joyce’s health problems stem from untreated syphilis, his infidelity as well as his rampant alcoholism and profligate spending make Barnacle miserable. While she seems to never doubt his calling, the family is often in financial straits, and she ends up taking in laundry to cover their bills. “I’m beginning to wonder if mine isn’t a blighted wifehood,” she laments.
Depicting her protagonist as fundamentally conventional at heart, O’Connor has Barnacle frequently lamenting their unmarried state. Joyce disdained the Catholic Church, but Barnacle, in this retelling, comes to regret their unsanctioned life together, worrying constantly about exposure as the two move around Europe and she bears first George and then the ill-fated Lucia. For all her confidence in Joyce’s genius, she also recoils from his open depiction of sexuality. She is embarrassed by “bawdy Molly” Bloom and is appalled by the notorious episode in which Leopold Bloom spies on young Gerty MacDowell. “Why Jim has to put such sleazy little scenes in his novel I don’t know.”
Even as Joyce’s literary star rises, the tensions remain, as publication only means more money for Joyce to squander or drink away. And as their children mature, their idiosyncrasies — notably George’s romance with an older woman and Lucia’s mental illness — add to Barnacle’s woes. O’Connor chronicles nearly every move as well as the numerous publishing setbacks and hospitalizations — first Joyce’s and then their daughter’s, for what would eventually be diagnosed as schizophrenia — through Barnacle’s reactions. While these struggles are believably depicted, they recur with a sameness that makes this lengthy work read even longer than it is. The book holds true to its namesake’s life, but the overall effect is numbing. This is a novel, after all, not a comprehensive biography.
Ultimately, it is also — as the subtitle says — a love story. For all her complaints, Barnacle and Joyce did seem to have a rare and lasting connection, and for all its flaws, O’Connor’s book makes this relationship palpable. In her depiction, Barnacle says it best: “Jim is Jim, and Nora is Nora, and we know that despite any upsets and troubles we’ve had, we’re as strong as steel together.”
NORA: A Love Story of Nora and James Joyce
By Nuala O’Connor
Harper Perennial, 496 pp., $16.99
Three weeks from today, on the 5th January, my novel NORA, about Nora Barnacle, is published by Harper Collins in the USA. (It comes out in Ireland with New Island in April and Insel Verlag in Germany).
All pre-order details for NORA are here.
To celebrate the launch day, I and fellow Irish author Eibhear Walshe, who published the wonderful The Last Days at Bowen’s Court this year, are doing an online event with Columbia University, facilitated by author Heather Corbally Bryant.
Event date and time: 5th January 8pm GMT / 3pm EST.
You can register for this event here – we would love to have you aboard!
Read all about our event below!
This conversation brings together two novelists who thread the needle between fiction and biography. Nuala O’Connor’s Nora: A Love Story of Nora and James Joyce (HarperCollins) and Eibhear Walshe’s The Last Day at Bowen’s Court (Somerville Press) are told from the point of view of two very different Irishwomen—Nora Barnacle and Elizabeth Bowen—and draw from biographical material but are not beholden to it. In this discussion moderated by Heather Bryant Jordan, the authors will consider the relationship between history and fiction, writing writer’s lives, and writing women’s lives.
Co-Sponsors: NYC Irish Studies Consortium, SOF/Heyman, NYU Glucksman Ireland House, The Wellesley College Writing Program, and Columbia University Seminar in Irish Studies.
Nora: A Love Story of Nora and James Joyce
For a video of Nuala O’Connor reading from Nora, please see the following link: https://youtu.be/7OSO5Wb815c
Acclaimed Irish novelist Nuala O’Connor’s bold reimagining of the life of James Joyce’s wife, muse, and the model for Molly Bloom in Ulysses is a “lively and loving paean to the indomitable Nora Barnacle” (Edna O’Brien).
Dublin, 1904. Nora Joseph Barnacle is a twenty-year-old from Galway working as a maid at Finn’s Hotel. She enjoys the liveliness of her adopted city and on June 16—Bloomsday—her life is changed when she meets Dubliner James Joyce, a fateful encounter that turns into a lifelong love. Despite his hesitation to marry, Nora follows Joyce in pursuit of a life beyond Ireland, and they surround themselves with a buoyant group of friends that grows to include Samuel Beckett, Peggy Guggenheim, and Sylvia Beach.
But as their life unfolds, Nora finds herself in conflict between their intense desire for each other and the constant anxiety of living in poverty throughout Europe. She desperately wants literary success for Jim, believing in his singular gift and knowing that he thrives on being the toast of the town, and it eventually provides her with a security long lacking in her life and his work. So even when Jim writes, drinks, and gambles his way to literary acclaim, Nora provides unflinching support and inspiration, but at a cost to her own happiness and that of their children.
With gorgeous and emotionally resonant prose, Nora is a heartfelt portrayal of love, ambition, and the quiet power of an ordinary woman who was, in fact, extraordinary.
The Last Day at Bowen’s Court
“A subtle, compelling and detailed reimagining of one of the great enduring love affairs of the literary twentieth century. Eibhear Walshe has brought a vanished time back to life.”
This remarkable novel explores the life of the Irish novelist, Elizabeth Bowen, her time in London during the Second World War and her ‘reporting’ on Irish neutrality for the Ministry of Information. At the centre of the novel is her Blitz love affair with the Canadian diplomat, Charles Ritchie, a wartime romance that inspired her most famous novel, The Heat of the Day, a gripping story about espionage and loyalty that became a best-seller. The story is told from the point of view of Bowen herself, and also from that of her lover Charles Ritchie, her husband Alan Cameron and Ritchie’s wife Sylvia. It is set in wartime London, Dublin and North Cork, and deals with the private and public conflicts of love and of national identity in a time of upheaval and liberation. At the centre of the novel is a portrait of Elizabeth Bowen, one of Ireland’s most influential writers.
Heather Corbally Bryant teaches in the Writing Program at Wellesley College; she is the author of the prize-winning book, Elizabeth Bowen and the Landscape of War, and ten books of poetry. Her poems have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and her chapbook, James Joyce’s Water Closet, won honorable mention in the Finishing Line Press Open Chapbook Competition. She is currently at work on a book of essays, A Memoir in Snapshots.
Nuala O’Connor was born in Dublin, Ireland, in 1970. A graduate of Trinity College Dublin, she is a novelist and short story writer, and lives in County Galway with her husband and three children. Nuala has won many prizes for her short fiction including the Short Story Prize in the UK and Ireland’s Francis MacManus Award. She is editor at flash e-zine Splonk.
Eibhear Walshe was born in Waterford, studied in Dublin, and now lives in Cork, where he lectures in the School of English at University College Cork and is Director of Creative Writing. He has published in the area of memoir, literary criticism and biography, and his books include Kate O’Brien: a Writing Life (2006), Oscar’s Shadow: Wilde and Ireland (2012), and A Different Story: The Writings of Colm Tóbín (2013). His childhood memoir, Cissie’s Abattoir (2009) was broadcast on RTE’s Book on One. His novel, The Diary of Mary Travers (2014) was shortlisted for the Kerry Group Novel of the Year in 2015 and longlisted for the 2016 International Dublin Literary Award. He was associate editor, with Catherine Marshall, of Modern Ireland in 100 Art Works, edited by Fintan O’Toole and shortlisted for the Bord Gais Energy Irish Book Award. His novel on Handel, The Trumpet Shall Sound was published in 2019 was described as ‘fascinating, deep and utterly absorbing’ by the Irish Times and ‘a plausible, sensuous coming-of-age story about a genius wrestling with love and ambition across eighteenth century Europe’ by Emma Donoghue.
Delighted that The Sunday Times has included my novel about Emily Dickinson, Miss Emily, in its Irish fiction of the 21st Century list. (Thank you, Bert Wright!)
I came across the German cover of my Nora Barnacle novel online by chance. There she is. By the Ha’penny Bridge 🙂
The book is published in German by Insel Verlag in April 2021. More here.