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The River Capture review: Portrait of an individual at the confluence of past and present

A former teacher finds himself in uncharted waters after leaving behind his cosmopolitan life

The River Capture
The River Capture
Author: Mary Costello
ISBN-13: 978-1782116431
Publisher: Canongate
Guideline Price: £14.99

A river capture, as our protagonist explains in the concluding chapter of this novel, is “when a river erodes the land and acquires the flow from another river or drainage system, usually below it, the first river is said to have captured the second in an act of piracy. The waters of the captured river are usurped by the captor and, at this point, the two become one.”

In the second novel by the critically acclaimed writer Mary Costello, Luke O’Brien is a former teacher who has left Dublin after a failed relationship to live a solitary life on his family land on the bend of the river Sullane. Now he whiles away his time by reminiscing about his family’s heyday and dwells on his happiest year in Dublin when he had a steady career and a relationship.

In uncharted waters after leaving behind his cosmopolitan life, Luke at present spends his days contemplating his life choices while mulling over writing a book on James Joyce. In a novel that is a subtle homage to Joyce, Luke’s obsession and reverence for Joyce form a major crux of the narrative, with frequent digressions about Ulysses and facts about Joyce’s life.

Luke’s memories are populated by his childhood spent with his extended family, the sole remnant of which is his ailing maiden aunt Ellen, who lives nearby. His solitary life is rattled by the arrival of a jaunty young woman named Ruth who turns up on his doorstep one day with a dog up for adoption. They develop an immediate connection based on the fact that they are both animal lovers and have in the past been unlucky in love.


Reading this novel is an esoteric experience, much like watching a Terrence Malick movie. While you will come out of it in awe of the breathtaking cinematography and dreamy nature sequences, there is an absence of a concrete plot and no discernible character development.

The unexpected arrival of Ruth in his life and the events that follow throw our protagonist’s sedentary life into disarray. Reckoning the possibility of a new relationship on the horizon, Luke takes Ruth to meet Ellen – which reveals a shocking past connection that threatens to impinge on Luke’s newfound joy. The intertwining past of Ruth and Luke’s families encroaches on their present and makes them choose between family loyalty and love.


The predicament Luke finds himself in greatly perturbs his already fragile mental state and his mind starts to unravel. Luke’s contact with reality dwindles as he thinks about the grave choice he has to make, propelling him to find solace in alcohol. The second half of the narrative reads like what Costello describes a river capture to be, “The natural course of one river is altered, thwarted; the river departs its own grid of understanding, changes direction, flows on and enters the sea at an entirely different location.” This is similar to what happens to Luke’s life after Ellen reveals her tragic past and forces Luke to make a grave choice.

Using Ruth’s connection to Ellen’s past as a lens, Costello shines a light on how rampant intolerance and misogyny were in Irish society in the fairly recent past and how easy it was to malign a woman’s character without any concrete evidence.

After grounding her novel in a fairly simple storyline, Costello changes gear in the second half, which takes a more abstract turn. Each new paragraph begins with a question posed; for instance, what dream does Luke recall now or which dominant memory emerges at a particular time of the day? This illustrates Luke’s increasingly splintered sense of self and the ebb and flow of memory. While an interesting stylistic choice on the part of the author I, for one, felt more detached from the main characters as a result of this fragmented prose.


Costello’s narrative is diaphanous and principally atmospheric. The mesmeric prose, like the river rendered, is “something alive and benevolent”. It is free flowing and constantly reorienting just as you get accustomed to its drift. Costello’s ability to adroitly juxtapose theological queries alongside existential questions is reminiscent of Sara Baume’s writing.

The River Capture paints an ethereal portrait of an individual at the confluence of his past and present. At one point, Luke, who is an avid reader, describes how he feels connected to “novels whose narrators experience certain moods and states of mind that he identifies with, and which are so subtle and delicate as to be almost impossible to describe”. That is, in fact, exactly the feeling this novel evokes.