Academy Street by Mary Costello

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Academy Street by Mary Costello

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Rebecca Foster
Reviewed by Rebecca Foster
Summary: A near-perfect novella about an Irish woman's early years and new life in New York City. Nominated for the Costa First Novel Award and shortlisted for Novel of the Year in the Irish Book Awards.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 192 Date: October 2014
Publisher: Canongate Books
ISBN: 9781782114185

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It is 1944. Tess Lohan's mother has just died at age 40, of tuberculosis. Seven-year-old Tess is one of six children in a rural Irish family. They live at Easterfield, a centuries-old manor house. A teacher later tells Tess the history of her home: built in 1678, it was a famine hospital in the 1840s; there are numerous corpses buried on the land. He hints there may be many ghosts on the property, but the only one that haunts Tess is her dead mother. 'Memories and traces of her mother must linger all over the house – in rooms and halls and landings. The dent of her feet on a rug. On a cup, the mark of her hand.'

Tess's father is angry and distant. The family keeps diminishing, as baby Oliver is farmed out to live with an aunt and Evelyn gets married. Tess and Maeve go to a convent boarding school, where she experiences homesickness like never before. When Claire goes to live with Aunt Molly in New York City, Tess has a pang of jealousy. After training as a nurse in a Dublin hospital for two years, it's no surprise that she follows in Claire's footsteps in 1962.

Only 25 when she arrives in New York, Tess is eager to start her new life. This lovely passage (perhaps my favourite in the whole book) shows her delighting in the city's novelty: 'Tess tuned to the frequency of the city, to the accents and the street-grid and the subway, to the black faces on the sidewalk, the sirens at night, the five-and-ten-cent stores teeming with goods, and buildings that rose up daily from gaps in the street. The new words too – pocket-book, meatloaf, lima beans, Jell-O. The taste of coffee, the clothes so lovely and cheap and slim-fitting. The abundance of everything.'

Tess gets a job in a hospital and, after some months boarding with Aunt Molly, moves into a shared apartment on Academy Street. She falls in love but only manages a one-night stand with her beau before he leaves for the Air Force in Vietnam. Once is enough: he impregnates her and she has a son, Theo, who fills her life. The years pass and life moves on. Work, family and literature give Tess a sense of purpose; history is merely the background to the course of one ordinary yet extraordinary life.

This is a novel where little happens for four decades, followed by a catastrophe so cruel you can hardly believe Costello would do this to her protagonist. The less I say about it all, the better. What I will say is that the plot is not really what matters here. The novel has many similarities to two recent works by Colm Tóibín, Brooklyn and Nora Webster, and like the latter, especially, Academy Street works as a character study, written in the third person but remarkably intimate nonetheless.

As the reader, you don't so much watch Tess as feel with her all the losses and disappointments of her simple life. As with Nora Webster, I was continually reminded of John Williams's rediscovered classic, Stoner, a novel of smallness and failure in Middle America. Costello gives something of the weight of a classical tragedy to Tess's struggle: 'The paucity of her life made her unspeakably sad…A pall grew, a feeling of ennui, at the thought of the daily mundane, the restraint, the stasis…In all her life she had never really known what to do or how to act.'

And yet there is beauty and dignity to this small life. 'Had she not, at times, felt blessed? Had she not felt the surge and soar of love, the glint of grace…had she not throbbed with passion?' As Claire writes to Tess, 'you with your beautiful soul shining out of you. Oh Tess, you're worth ten of the rest of us.' I enjoyed losing myself for a few days in this character's unadorned but elegant life story. Costello's prose may seem plain, but, like Tess, it has hidden depths. If I have one quibble, it's that the book needs a more evocative title – something that will give it the literary weight it deserves.

Further reading suggestion: Clever Girl by Tessa Hadley and Someone by Alice McDermott are two quiet life stories, the latter of an Irish-American in New York City. The Pink Suit by Nicole Mary Kelby has a similar main character and time period.

Booklists.jpg Academy Street by Mary Costello is in the Costa Book Awards 2014.

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