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.