NORA by Nuala O’ Connor | Book Reviews | Historical Fiction

By Swirl and Thread

‘Jim styles me his sleepy-eyed Nora. His squirrel girl from the pages of Ibsen. I am pirate queen and cattle raider. I’m his blessed little blackguard. I am, he says, his auburn marauder. I’m his honourable barnacle goose…. “Nora,” Jim says, “you are story.”’

NORA by Nuala O’ Connor is published with New Island Books. It recounts the love story of Nora Barnacle and James Joyce as seen through the eyes of Nora and it is an absolutely authentic and convincing retelling of one of the most famous relationships in literature of two unorthodox individuals who lived outside the rules of society and who just continue to fascinate and intrigue.

My fascination with the Joyce Family began only a few years back when I listened to a podcast where a book by Jessa Crispin was mentioned. In The Dead Ladies Project (Sept 2015) ‘Crispin interweaves biography, incisive literary analysis, and personal experience into a rich meditation on the complicated interactions of place, personality, and society that can make escape and reinvention such an attractive, even intoxicating proposition.’ It was here that I first encountered Nora Barnacle and my interest was piqued. Later I read The Joyce Girl (June 2016) by Annabel Abbs followed by Saving Lucia (April 2020) by Anna Vaught. On a trip to Dublin a few years ago I visited The James Joyce Tower & Museum at the Martello Tower, Sandycove, a treasure trove of information and ‘the setting of the opening chapter of James Joyce’s masterpiece Ulysses. The unique collection of Joycean memorabilia on display in the James Joyce Museum, evoke many stories from its literary past.’ When I heard that Nuala O’ Connor was writing NORA I was very excited at the prospect of reading it and it most certainly did not disappoint.

I have an unusual relationship with James Joyce in that I have never read his work. I am Irish. I read about the annual Bloomsday celebrations in Dublin and have heard many conversations about Ulysses and The Dubliners. I do not own any of James Joyce’s writings but, I am very much intrigued by the women in his life . The tragic life of Lucia Joyce is well-documented. She was a haunted individual seeking reassurance and love but never achieving the freedom and acclaim she so desired, ultimately ending her days in a sanatorium. Her mother Nora Barnacle, a Galway girl, was a free spirit, destined to live a life of extremes with an unconventional and obsessive man by her side. Nora Barnacle caught the eye of James (Jim) Joyce and together they created a world full of passion and eccentricities, leaving Catholic Ireland behind and settling for some time in Trieste, Italy, as well as stints in Paris, Rome, Zurich, back and forth over the years.

‘”We are not, perhaps, living the easy life we hoped for, Nora, but when my book is published, we’ll be high on the hog” “Will we? I hope so Jim”. I want so much to trust him’

Unmarried and penniless, they lived from day to day off the generosity of others, in particular from the generosity of Stanislaus Joyce, James’ brother. Their years were fraught with heightened arguments over money and the down-at-heel lifestyle they lived, always scrounging, always dependent on others, yet somehow they survived. With two children, Giorgio and Lucia, Nora Barnacle and James Joyce married later in life in 1931. The institution of marriage was something that James Joyce dismissed but eventually he was persuaded otherwise when Giorgio himself wanted to marry and wished for his own birth to be legitimised.

Nora and James lived a bohemian lifestyle and, more often than not, a pauper’s existence. His infrequent teaching was their main income but most of what he earned he spent on drink, leaving Nora with two small mouths to feed in a country not her own.

She resorted to taking in laundry, willing to do anything to put food on their table. James Joyce was so obsessed with his writing, his rejection from his country of birth, his exile to a foreign land that, although his ardour for Nora was clear, he was selfish to the extreme. Nora was by no means perfect. She too embraced many of the peculiarities of their lives. When James eventually garnered the recognition of some of the more established and respected literary circle he buried himself even more into his writing with little time given over to his family and his own personal wellbeing. His health suffered greatly but he ploughed on, determined to gain respect for his work, at any cost.

Giorgio and Lucia had a strange and distinctive upbringing. Their parents, so very much wrapped up in their own lives, gave little to their children. Giorgio and Lucia craved parental attention and love but they were ofttimes, and very obviously, in the way.

The story of Nora Barnacle and James Joyce is beautifully brought to life through the words of Nuala O’ Connor. Their pain and anguish spill out from the pages. James Joyce’s frustration regarding publication of his work is a constant battle, one that echoes throughout the book. There are highs in their life but it is the lows that stick in the mind of the reader long after the final page is turned. And as the years passed James Joyce was almost blinded from the drink, with continuous and very serious eye complaints, leaving him in terrible pain and disenchanted with his world.

‘”Paris will wait for you, Jim. And the gombeen newspapermen with their fancies, too. But you’ll be a corpse if you continue the way you’re going. Would that suit you? Or do you want, above all else, to be a man-about-town? Stumbling around rotten with drink?
If you want to put wine and your writer friends and larking about in the Bal Bullier before your family and work, so be it” I point in his face. “But, Jim, mark me, you’ll neither see nor hear from us again. Do you understand? I’m nearly twenty years putting up with your nonsense, Jim Joyce. No more. Do you hear me?” He drops his head. ” I hear you, Gooseen.”’

His refusal to look after himself caused much upset and, at times, resentment for Nora but she remained by his side until the bitter end after many years of constant upheaval across multiple borders.

NORA is an outstanding novel. Nuala O’ Connor has created a remarkable tribute to Nora Barnacle exploring her relationship with one of Ireland’s literary greats and giving the reader an insight into the terrible hardships she endured in the name of love for nearly four decades. A very evocative and poignant novel NORA explores the intensity of their relationship and their extraordinary love. NORA is vivid. NORA is sensuous. NORA is sumptuous. NORA is a love story….

“What in God’s name will my life be without him? We were like one person with many sides and, now, my best part is gone. Oh Jim, oh my lovely darling, I don’t know how to go on without you.”

(c) Swirl and Thread

Order your copy online here.

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