I’m very pleased the New York Times names my novel NORA among the 10 best historical novels of 2021. ‘A lively fictional rendition of Nora Barnacle, the minimally educated, blue-collar woman who propped up one of literature’s most challenging highbrow writers.’ Huge thanks to Alida Becker. Lovely to be in there with personal faves Alison MacLeod and Colm Tóibín.
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.