Nuala O'Connor beautifully unfolds the hardscrabble life of Nora Barnacle, the wife of James Joyce, focusing on her early life in Galway and then in Dublin. In June 1904, sleepy-eyed Nora meets Jim. She's Jim's "squirrel girl," a quote he takes from the pages of Ibsen. From the outset, Jim in entranced by his "goosey blackguard" and overwhelmed by her sexual forwardness. To Jim, Nora is Ireland herself, an island shaped by "harp and shamrock, tribe and queen."
Nora loves the fact that Jim has no natural shame. Their "two mouths crash together" as she kisses him with all the "fierce light of my body." There's not another man who can talk like Jim or sing like him: "Out of his mouth come the sweet words about...taking love easy." Jim's "goat-blue eyes, clear as saltwater" reflect his fierce mind. Once Jim opens her arms to Nora, her loneliness for Galway is suddenly gone: "if they could see Jim and me now, carefree as birds, love wrapped snug around us like a shawl."
It would be a great adventure to go with Jim, away from all they know. She would like to marry even if he does not. Though she finds some comfort in Jim's brother, Stanislas, it is Jim whom she orbits. Nora knows that she can be good for Jim and enough for him; she also knows that he is "no stainless innocent." She wants him and thinks about him and glows with the memory of their loving. Onward to Trieste they go, Jim scribbling his latest story, "set in Dublin about a man called Stephen Dedalus."
Through Nora, O'Connor renders Jim in vibrant tones. He's useless, bold, and money-squandering even as he showers her with love and sex, calling her "My lovely Nora. My only Gooseen. My blue-eyed queen." Moving from Trieste to Rome (and later to Paris), Nora understands Jim like no other. She doesn't care "a rambling damn for art."
O'Connor explores the writer and his wife: their passion, their loyalties, their daily financial struggles; their children, Giorgio and Lucia; and the deep friendships with their wealthy patrons. Everyone runs about after Jim, organizing his life. O'Connor portrays Nora as mostly emotionally exhausted, plagued by fury at their lack of money as well as Jim's gallivanting all over Trieste like "some kind of prince." Nora worries over his safety while he gets "drunk with seamen and peddlers, and probably whores." Here in Trieste - far from conventional Dublin - Jim works as a teacher, barely able to live on his pay: "All I want Nora is to dip my pen and write tiny little sentences."
In Rome, the sun blinds Nora, the golden statues seeming ablaze. Nora feels as if her eyes might melt. Jim doesn't seem to have a plain thought or action. Paris offers the promise of better times. Though their marriage is tested, through Jim's constant drinking and carousing, Paris is where they were always meant to be. Here, far from Dublin, Nora reflects on her young self, a naïve girl who had no idea what life or love was about, no clue of the troubles of a marriage or the heavy weight of the love for one's own child. Nora's journey is to acknowledge the love, the novelty of the wonder, and the giddy feeling of everything being new and fresh.
O'Connor captures Nora's difficulties and frustrations, from the first ecstasy of Jim's sexual attentions to, later, something more complete. From the charges of obscenity and decayed ambitions to Jim's life as a famous writer, when the success of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man gives him the boost he aches for, O'Connor crafts a fraught, fragile world composed of Jim and Nora's great glories and bitter defeats, all seen through the eyes of a sturdy, faithful woman who, through all the heartache and loyalty, is able find the strength to sustain her one true love.