A worthy rival to Colm Tóibín and David Mitchell: Academy Street
Mary Costello uses restrained writing and characterisation to paint decades of a migrant life in New York
Mary Costello: the insights of her narrator delve deep into the human condition and the bittersweet beauty of life.
Mary Costello’s first short-story collection, The China Factory, from 2012, marked her out as a fresh voice in Irish fiction, unafraid of difficult themes. Published by the Stinging Fly, it was nominated for the Guardian First Book award.
Academy Street, Costello’s debut novel, already finds itself garnering nominations. The Galway writer is the sole female representative in the novel-of-the-year category at the 2014 Irish Book Awards. With its elegant, restrained writing and masterly characterisation, her book would be a worthy winner, but it faces stiff competition from more established voices, among them Colm Tóibín and the British author David Mitchell.
Costello’s debut calls to mind the work of Tóibín, particularly Brooklyn, his 2009 novel. Just as the shy and wistful Eilis Lacey crosses the Atlantic to take her chances in 1950s New York, Costello sends her protagonist, Tess Lohan, to the same city a decade later. The style and voice of both books are similar, the prose and tone lulling the reader before delivering an emotional punch.
Comparisons can also be made to Claire Keegan’s excellent Foster. Both books are short on words but big on impact. Both have young narrators grappling with family and loss. The first part of Academy Street introduces seven-year-old Tess on the eve of her mother’s funeral, in 1940s rural Galway. Over the novel this compelling voice grows up, relating the next four decades of her life and the heartbreaking events that will come to define her.
Gestures of affection
After qualifying as a nurse in Dublin, Tess follows her favourite sister, Claire, to the US. Nervous and excited, she hopes to find in New York something to dispel her “essential loneliness” and unease. Introspective and detached, Tess gets along with her colleagues and extended family but remains apart.
When Claire goes west to California, Tess moves into a house on Academy Street in Inwood with another Irish emigrant. Anne Beckett’s friendship opens doors, improving Tess’s social life, but the sense of unease has emigrated with her: “In the city, she felt the stir of anxiety on the streets, and day by day it entered her. On the TV, missiles, warheads, ships steaming towards Cuba.”
The momentous events taking place in the United States are woven into the narrative. Time creeps up on the reader. Costello handles this well, jumping years in a few pages; a line or two is all that is needed to indicate that things have moved on. The final leap to noughties New York jars somewhat, however, feeling sudden in a novel of otherwise excellent pace.
Love fleetingly arrives in the shape of David O’Hara. Months of longing gives way to a one-night stand, which provides Tess with her life’s great love, her son Theo. Her passivity and withdrawn disposition impede this relationship as Theo grows older. Tess loves not wisely but too well, her trepidation about life and her efforts to keep her son close ultimately driving him away. While Tess’s torment is depicted in her pensive, methodical way, Theo is an enigma, a peripheral character full of unexplained rage.
For all that she shuts herself away from life, feeling at times “marooned on an island, a moat of water, wide and black, separating her from all human love”, Tess never closes herself off from the reader. Even when tragedy strikes, her selfishness is self-aware and her anger doesn’t embitter. She is a generous narrator, gently pointing out lessons with language that stirs. Her hard-won insights delve deep into the human condition, into the bittersweet beauty of life, and linger long after the story ends.