‘This is as polished a piece of storytelling you’ll read this year’ – Academy Street by Mary Costello

mcasIt’s been two and a half years since we reviewed Costello’s début, the fantastic collection, The China Factory, and in the meantime, like Kevin Barry before her, Costello’s made the shift from small press (Ireland’s stellar The Stinging Fly) to a more mainstream publisher – in this case, Canongate (always a supporter of new talent), who’ve bought the rights not only to The China Factory, but also to the book we’re looking at now, Academy Street, and whatever Costello does next: talk about swooping in! And Canongate clearly know a deal when they see one: Academy Street, her second book and début novel, is as memorable as The China Factory at its best – that is, it’s low-key, but strikes right to the reader’s heart. In fact, since we received our copy, it’s been racking up positive reviews and prize shortlistings (Book of the Year in the 2014 Irish Book Awards) all over the place.

So: when we covered The China Factory, we saluted the economy of Costello’s prose and the depth of her characterisations, and we warned readers that the stories, while studded with moments of humour, joy and grace, were heavily tempered with loss, anxiety and loneliness. Well, that could also be a (long) tagline for the novel, which would give any domestic tragedy you’d care to mention a run for its money (Richard Yates, we’re looking at you). Fans of the former book might be pleased to hear that the two are linked not only by a similar aesthetic, but also by a recurrent setting: one of the highlights of the collection, ‘You Fill Up My Senses’, name-checks Easterfield, the grand and slowly decaying family home of Academy Street’s protagonist, Tess Lohan, and not only that, but the earlier story’s protagonist reads like an alternative incarnation of Tess herself. Whilst in the first version, the Tess stand-in is (unhappily) married with children at home in Ireland, the novel deletes the husband and transplants Tess to New York City. The tales nonetheless continue to echo one another: while the character’s daughter in ‘You Fill Up My Senses’ worries that ‘there is no one in the whole worlds as lonely as her mother’, in Academy Street, Tess concludes that:

‘This was it. This was her life, the summation of her life, her dreams run out. She would not encounter love again. She would not lie down with a man or hold a child in her arms. She was at the end of her destiny.’

Loss, grief and death, then, and mourning, not only for individuals, but also for lost ways of life and for opportunities missed, permeate both book. A laugh a minute, Academy Street ain’t. But, for all that, it’s not a desperately sad read – Costello is a proper whizz at blending small joys and blessings with the cumulating misfortunes of Tess’s life. And, like a real life, this one’s neither unrelentingly miserable, nor unfeasibly joyous or straightforward.

It’s a life-story, then, picking up Tess’s tale just after her mother’s early death in the 1940s, and carrying on through her tense childhood – coloured by a father’s bitter and unfathomable grief – and her solitary time as a trainee nurse in Dublin, to her emigration to the States in the 1960s, her unrequited love affair with a young lawyer, her interracial friendship with Willa, her neighbour and closest friend, her experiences as a single parent, and, later, the loss of her son and the onset of her old age, culminating with a long-due trip back to Easterfield.

While Tess’s story is, in ways, a predictable one – the ‘working-class Irish emigrant to the States’ narrative isn’t what we’d call a shocker – it’s incisive and rounded and truthful. Tess’s sufferings (bereavement, betrayal, abandonment, loneliness) are infallibly compassionately portrayed; Costello never slips into cliché or cuts narrative corners. Every facet of Tess’s emotional experience is thoroughly explored. And if we’re making that sound like an introspective drag, then let it be known that the writing itself is light and direct and never overstated. The writer’s attention to detail here is sharp: we see exactly only as much as we need to see to convey mood and event – there’s no padding and no meandering. The book is short, concise and heartbreaking – it feels as though you’ve read a much longer text, and yet it doesn’t once lag. So while it treads a path that’s dark and unhappy and shadowed with grief and Tess’s unanswered questions, it’s also a story that’s full of incandescent moments of joy, beauty and hope. Tess – like her literary namesake – get put through the emotional wringer, but she doesn’t lose heart; even when the very earth seems ‘mortally wounded’, the trees themselves ‘bowing down in sorrow’ in recognition of her depleted existence, she carries on: all there is, she thinks, is time, ‘and tasks made lighter by the memory of love’.

Any Cop?: Sounds positive, right? Damn right. You’ll probably cry – you ought to cry – but it’s far from a formulaic tear-jerker. This is as polished a piece of storytelling you’ll read this year, and we’re already looking forward to book three.

 

Valerie O’Riordan

 


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