When Mary Costello’s collection The China Factory was published in 2012 by The Stinging Fly, it was clear that here was a writer of huge ability. Nominated for the Guardian First Book Award, her short stories braided the parochial, familial and pastoral. There were – of course – comparisons to John McGahern and murmurs about Alice Munro, but Costello’s command of language and tone was all her own. The leap from short story to novel is a tricky act of equilibrium, but the seeds of Academy Street are found in ‘You Fill Up My Senses’, initially published in that first remarkable collection.
In the west of Ireland in the 1940s, a young girl called Tess Lohan attends her mother’s funeral. The sudden loss furnishes her with the first of many stages of withdrawal she experiences in a life traced over seven decades. When a local tinker girl dies, Tess stops speaking completely. “A time will come when no one will talk to her at all, or even look at her. She is a disappearing girl.” This is the first hint that Tess’ life will be marked by a social muteness, and a desire to hover in the wings, rather than be front and centre of her own life. At 18, Tess arrives in New York and is immediately absorbed into emigrant life. A tentative romance with Irishman David results in pregnancy but he has moved on before she realises this. Tess keeps the child, a boy called Theo, resolving to juggle work and motherhood.
From Maeve Brennan to Colm Tóibín and Colum McCann, Irish writers have an umbilical connection to America, and readers may hear echoes of Tóibín’s Brooklyn. Both stories explore the possibilities of a new city in contrast to the domestic obligation and social stagnation left behind in Ireland. But if Costello resembles any contemporary Irish writer it is the mastery of Claire Keegan. Fields and rooms and relationships become so much more under the scrutiny of both writers. Tess is not so bold as to seek the American dream, but recognises that New York offers her self-determination in a way Ireland couldn’t. Crucially, America allows her to keep her son. “On the subway she contemplated an alternative life back in Ireland. A pall grew at the thought of the daily mundane, the restraint, the stasis. She could never have kept Theo. It seemed to her now to be a place without dreams, or where dreaming was prohibited.” To read this novel in the year of the Tuam Mother and Baby Home case in Ireland, Tess’ story is more defiant, than diffident. Autonomy is not a catch-all for contentment, but Costello reveals Tess to be far less inert than the reader initially takes her for. After a lacklustre date with a man, she is distraught by how much she “longed for a passionate, even outrageous, life”. Theo is also unaware of her inner turmoil, and as he grows, so does the distance between them. Their drift dominates the second half of the book, and this section is less sure-footed.
Theo’s resentment is based on his mother’s perceived passivity – but why is he so unforgiving of his Tess’ taciturn nature? Certainly, there are often no reasons for schisms in families, and Academy Street may be trying to unpick how the roots of division can be ambiguous and untraceable. It’s a rare narrative stumble, when elsewhere Costello’s writing is so controlled and convincing. There is an acuity to the way she captures Tess’ complex world of push-pull that makes her both withdrawn and desperate to experience life. The city pulses, and as Tess strives for meaning, her interiority and melancholy recall Maeve Brennan’s wonderful writing about New York. Brennan, like Tess, recognised the enormity of the city, while acknowledging all the small, conspicuous lives within it. And Tess’ life IS small to the point of miniscule, but in chronicling her lack of distinction, Academy Street brings to mind John Williams’ resurrected masterpiece Stoner. Both novels ask what constitutes a worthy contribution to the world and in offering us seemingly unremarkable lives, give us an extraordinarily compelling narrative. John Stoner and Tess Lohan also find solace in reading: Tess “became herself, her most true self, in those hours among books. I am made for this, she thought”, which is equally applicable to a writer of Costello’s talent. Rendering such a quiet life – and one that impacts on readers as much as Tess does – can be difficult to pull off, but not for one the most engaging and important voices to emerge in Irish writing.
Academy Street by Mary Costello is published by Canongate Books.
This review was originally published in The Guardian on October 25th, 2014