Mary Costello: how I came to write Academy Street

‘The ache for home, for belonging, is probably one of the more obvious themes in Academy Street. It’s not just a physical home that Tess longs for, but a metaphysical one too – that perpetual ache in mankind for Paradise, Eden, the longing to touch something sublime or numinous’

 

The seed of Academy Street lies in a short story from my collection The China Factory, which features a child whose mother grew up in a big old house called Easterfield. My mother came from a big old house in the west of Ireland, and I modelled Easterfield – Tess’s childhood home in Academy Street – on that house and farm. As a child it had made a great impression on me; it had two stairs and large reception rooms, a gong in the hall, a coachhouse, an orchard, an avenue with old trees. It had been built in 1678 and for a time in the late 1840s it was used as a hospital to relieve overcrowding in the local workhouse during the Famine. Out of a total of 480 patients there, 179 died, and the unclaimed bodies were buried on the land, in ditches and in the quarry and under trees – these same places where my mother had played as a child. And where Tess, my character, would also play as a child.

When my mother was three years old, her mother died. When I was small I was very close to my mother, and the thought that she’d had to grow up without a mother was almost unbearable. Later, it struck me how catastrophic the death of a parent – in particular the death of a mother – is for a child. How the trajectory of a whole family’s future can suddenly change. And how, too, the effects might be felt for several generations. My mother’s older sisters were taken out of boarding school to help rear the younger children, and they never returned. They might have gone on to university and had professions – their friends did – but that never happened.

In my novel Tess trains as a nurse and emigrates to America, as so many Irish men and women did in the Fifties and Sixties. My mother never emigrated, but two of her sisters and a brother did. One of her sisters, Carmel, was a nurse in New York in the early Sixties and lived in an apartment on Academy Street in Inwood at the northern end of Manhattan. Inwood is a mainly Hispanic neighbourhood now but back then it was something of an Irish enclave. Carmel worked in the New York Presbyterian Hospital and nursed Cole Porter and Elizabeth Taylor and Mrs Roosevelt. She stayed in New York for just four years before returning and settling back in Galway. But I keep Tess in New York permanently where, as a nurse and a mother, she lives a quiet, intense life against the backdrop of the major events of the second half of the twentieth century. While she shares some geographical settings and biographical details with my aunt and my mother Tess is a fictional creation and her interior life, both as a child and as an adult, is entirely imagined.

For as long as I can remember New York has cast its spell on me – the intoxicating effects of TV, film, music, and photographs of American aunts, uncles, cousins that I pored over as a child, all of them looking more beautiful than my Irish relatives. I’ve never lived in New York but have visited many times. I was there in the summer of 2011 and, almost every day, took the A train up to Inwood. I found Academy Street and the apartment building my aunt had lived in. I walked around the streets and the park, visited the church, the library; imagining the lives of my aunts, my uncle; hearing the echoes of their footsteps on the streets, the footsteps of so many Irish emigrants who’d started out there with hopes and dreams.

There is something about that generation of young men and women, something I glimpse in photographs and in stories of their lives – their innocence and earnestness, their lack of cynicism too – that moves me. One day I sat on a bench across the street from the school as parents gathered to collect their children. In an upstairs classroom I could see the tops of little heads, and tiny hands being raised and lowered. Something was constellated in that moment and Tess’s whole life began to unfold before me.

When I was writing the novel I wasn’t aware of themes and certainly never consciously inserted any – my only concern was to tell Tess’s story. But of course, themes emerge and it’s easier to see them from this distance – core themes like loss, loneliness, the longing for home. Other themes too like fate, place, emigration, the constraints on women’s lives. I have no wish to be a chronicler of social history but, in the telling of Tess’s story, the social climate and mores of Ireland in the 1940s, Fifties and Sixties are inevitably reflected.

There is, at the centre of Tess, a tension between the inner and outer worlds. An introvert by nature, she gets her energy from within and finds it difficult to navigate the external world. She is shy, private, solitary, but her interior life is passionate, turbulent, joyful too. And yet there is a sense – even in Tess herself – that this is not enough and that, in order to fit in and live a full and worthwhile life, one must look outwards and be more actively engaged with the world. Because, in our extroverted societies, the interior life is not much valued.

The ache for home, for belonging, is probably one of the more obvious themes in Academy Street. It’s not just a physical home that Tess longs for, but a metaphysical one too – that perpetual ache in mankind for Paradise, Eden, the longing to touch something sublime or numinous. Tess is searching for another layer to reality that might give meaning or substance to her life, and she does glimpse it at times – in nature and love and literature. And in memory too, in the memory of home and childhood and the tragic landscape that imprinted itself on her soul.

Academy Street by Mary Costello is published by Canongate Books at £8.99

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