"A Widow's Lament" would be a suitable subtitle of Colm Tóibín's quietly absorbing new novel, "Nora Webster." Or maybe, "A Widow's Resolve."
Nora Webster is at once bereaved and determined to move on after her husband, Maurice, dies, leaving her alone with their four children: two teen boys still at home and two college-aged girls.
The more her neighbors and relatives in the Irish town of Enniscorthy heap pity on middle-aged Nora, the more she wishes that they would leave her alone so she can "work out how she was going to live."
The surest remedy for her grief, Nora intuits, is to get on with things. With uncharacteristic swiftness, she decides to sell a tiny seaside cottage where the Webster family spent summer vacations. At the town salon, she gets her hair colored for the first time.
Nora grew up poor, began working at 14 and never went to college. Her marriage to Maurice, a popular teacher with political leanings, gave her the freedom to be a stay-at-home mother. After Maurice dies, she accepts an offer from a prosperous family to return to work in its company's office.
These and other small events occupy much of the book's melancholic first half. The narrative moves deliberately, like slowly turned transparencies of the human body in a biology textbook.
While some readers may grow restless at this incrementalism, those familiar with such other Tóibín novels as "The Master" and "Brooklyn" will know that he often eschews dramatic incident in favor of a slow accretion of revelatory detail over time. Here, his arm's-length prose well suits his careful sketch of reticent Nora's growing self-confidence.
Suspense arises not from hype or cliffhanger but from nuance and complexity. Nora's coming-to-power story rubs slyly up against such wider themes as women's lib, late 1960s violence in Northern Ireland, the spirit world, economic justice, class antagonism, the power of music, widowhood, love, motherhood, family and memory.
Nora loved Maurice, but she also lived in his shadow. Single, she finds her voice — literally, when she takes singing lessons, and figuratively, when she stands up to perceived injustice at her son's school — and joins an effort to organize a union at her workplace.
Late in the novel, Nora enters a prolonged fugue state brought on by prescription painkillers and sleeplessness. Maurice's ghost visits her, and she recalls a night spent in vigil at her mother's deathbed. Each paragraph of these pages rewards rereading, so deftly are they composed, and so full of pathos and insight.
When Nora experiences a deep emotional kinship while gazing at her mother's face, she believes that "none of the others would be able to see it, they were too busy, too close, too involved. It was her distance that made it possible." A conclusion that also neatly summarizes the detachment that enables so much powerful art.
Claude Peck is arts editor of Star Tribune. On Twitter: @ClaudePeck