‘If God himself came down from the sky, Jim would find something for him to do,” says Nora Barnacle of her wayward genius, James Joyce, in Nuala O’Connor’s account of their rackety time together.
In her fifth novel, Nora, the author boldly imagines the feted Irish writer’s home life, channelled through Barnacle’s voice. Nora was Joyce’s muse and the template for Molly Bloom in Ulysses. Her common sense and loyalty gave him the security his art could not, at least for decades, as he struggled to find a publisher.
The novel encompasses their 37 years together: from that memorable day on June 16, 1904 when they first walked out together in Dublin until his death.
Nora, who emerges here as a convincing character with a distinctive voice, fell in love with Joyce when she met him while working as a hotel chambermaid. He wooed her with words but didn’t believe in the institution of marriage, and while she would have liked its security, her wild streak allowed her to run away with him.
They passed themselves off as a married couple (eventually marrying in 1931) in various European cities and initially he taught in a language school while she tried to manage in rented rooms, taking in laundry to make ends meet. Various family members were encouraged to join them, mainly to help pay the bills.
O’Connor doesn’t shy away from the fact that Joyce drank every day, even when money was tight and they had children to feed. Self-absorbed and obsessed with his writing, he is less likeable by the close of the book and the steadfast Nora more admirable.
She left school at 12 and was not bookish, but had a colourful turn of phrase and her stories about Galway life burrowed into his fiction. In O’Connor’s telling, she speaks in a stream of consciousness that Joyce uses in Ulysses. Nora doesn’t pretend to understand his books, dismissing his “codology, strings of baby babble”.
Sensual, loving and loyal, she knows how to keep him happy. But life is negotiated on his terms: their lifestyle is erratic, which fuels Joyce’s creativity.
It is intriguing to see the family dynamic explored, with Nora fretting about their son Giorgio’s relationship with an older woman, and the “skittery-scattery” look in their daughter Lucia’s eyes — guiltily wondering whether their peripatetic lifestyle contributed to her mental illness (“between us we may have made our daughter mad”).
But it’s clear from this historical fiction brought lushly to life, laced with glorious prose, that Nora Barnacle had the adventure of a lifetime with James Joyce. “Nora,” Jim says, “you are story.” And an enduring love story at that.
Listen to a discussion of historical fiction including ‘Nora’ on ‘The Book Show’ on RTÉ Radio 1 tomorrow at 7pm