Costello’s gorgeous, deeply-affecting novel, Academy Street, focuses on the life of Tess Lohan, a girl born and raised on a farm in rural Ireland. The novel opens in the mid-1940s with the death of Tess’ mother, a life cut short by tuberculosis.
At seven, Tess is considered too young to attend her mother’s funeral, so she must stay at home for the day instead. We quickly get the sense that the family has told her very little about her mother’s death, but when Tess sees the coffin being manoeuvred down the stairs, she suddenly realises that her mother has gone:
The stairs sweep up and turn to the right and it is here on the turn, by the stained-glass window, that her uncle’s back comes into view. Light is streaming in. Her heart starts to beat fast. She sees the back of a neighbour, Tommy Burns, and her other uncle, struggling. And then she understands. At the exact moment she sees the coffin, she understands. (pg. 5, Canongate)
This pivotal event in Tess’ childhood sets the tone for the decades that follow. Life on the farm is very quiet, and Tess retreats into herself, having been deeply affected by the loss of her mum. Moreover, her father is strict and taciturn, but there is some solace in the form of close friends – Tess’ older sister, Claire, and the farm hand, Mike Connolly.
The remainder of the first third of the novel touches on key moments in Tess’ childhood, most notably an encounter which renders her unable to speak for several months. We follow Tess as she moves to boarding school and then to Dublin where she trains as a nurse. During her time as a nurse, she is kind and polite to her colleagues but retreats into the shadows wherever possible:
She goes to the cinema with a girl from Cork, but mostly avoids social gatherings and nights out. The shyness she feels among others, and the terrible need to fit in, cause her such anxiety that when the evening arrives the prospect of going among people renders her immobile, disabled, sometimes physically sick. Whenever possible, she opts for night duty, the low lights and the hush of the ward offering the closest thing to solitude available in a working life. (pg. 52)
By this point in time, Tess’ beloved sister, Claire, has moved to New York, and each time Tess returns to the family home of Easterfield, she notices the changes: Mike Connolly has moved on, too old and poorly to tend the farm any longer; the family’s dog has passed away; and her younger brother, Oliver, has grown up. Tess realises there is little left for her in Ireland, so she decides to follow in Claire’s footsteps by moving to America.
The remainder of the novel concerns itself with Tess’ life in New York which begins in the early ’60s. Following her arrival, Tess moves in with her Aunt Molly and another boarder, Fritz; and as the months pass, there is a sense of Tess becoming accustomed to the rhythms of the city. She finds a nursing job at the hospital, and seeks solace in books. New York buzzes with vitality, but as Tess goes about her days, the shadow of loneliness that has characterised her life continues to accompany her.
In time, Tess befriends another Irish nurse, Anne, and the two women rent an apartment together. One day, when Tess joins her flatmate on a picnic, she meets a young Irish lawyer named David. He reminds Tess of a quieter, brighter version of her brother, Oliver, and for the first time in her adult life she feels the pull of attraction:
She was aware of every breath, the flex of every muscle, where his eyes fell, his hands. To be this watchful, this attuned to a man, a stranger, excited and confused her. (pg.71)
Tess longs to see David again. We get a sense that she is wrestling with the uncertainty of these strange new feelings, torn between the possibility of love and a natural tendency to withdraw.
One of the most impressive things about this novel is the intensity of feeling Costello brings to Tess’ story. The prose is spare and controlled but the reader feels a sense of closeness to Tess, as if we have near complete access to her thoughts and emotions. This next quote should help illustrate the style – a passage where Tess and David are alone together at Anne’s wedding reception:
He looked out across the lawn, into the twilight. In the silence that ensued she arrived at a complete understanding of him. Recalling this moment later she could not say how she had come to this understanding, only that she had, she had fathomed something deep in him. It was more than fellow feeling. It was as if she had perceived all the joy and fear and pain that had ever entered his heart, and he had let her. For an instant he had let her love him. (pg. 83)
This is quite a difficult novel to review without revealing key aspects of the plot, and to say any more might be a step too far — so I’ll leave you to discover these development for yourself, should you decide to read the book.
Academy Street is a poignant novel, the deeply moving story of a quiet life. The tone is achingly melancholy, but there are moments of intense beauty amidst the heartache.
Costello has a great eye for detail, aspects that add a sense of authenticity or something extra to the narrative. To give you an example, there is a telling moment as Tess leaves the family home to fly to America. She turns her head to the lone ash among a group of beech trees and sees for the first time ‘a band of barbed wire embedded in the trunk, the flesh forced to grow over the spikes in pained little folds and swellings.’ A reflection, perhaps, of the hurt in her life. Religion and Biblical references also feature in the novel, particularly the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.
I’ll end with a favourite quote from this notable debut novel. Tess has never enjoyed a particularly close relationship with her father, partly due to his closed nature. Nevertheless, prior to her move to America, there comes a moment when Tess reaches an understanding with him, and she catches a glimpse of everything he has suffered:
A peaceful lull falls on the kitchen and she looks at him. ‘Will I cut your hair?’ she asks. He turns his head towards her, and she waits to be denounced. He looks at her, baffled, stunned, as if he has suddenly found himself somewhere else. His chin begins to quiver, and he looks down. She is flooded with tender feelings for him. She sees for the first time all he has endured. (pg. 54)
I read Academy Street to participate in Reading Ireland Month, hosted by Cathy at 746 Books.
Several other bloggers have reviewed this novel – they include Naomi (The Writes of Women), Eric (Lonesome Reader), Kim (Reading Matters), Susan (A Life in Books) and Clare (A Little Blog of Books).
Academy Street is published by Canongate. Source: personal copy (eBook). Book 14/20 in my #TBR20.
Good review, Jacqui. I’m glad you enjoyed it and thanks for the link.
You’re very welcome, Naomi. Thanks for recommending it to me.
Another wonderful review. I’ve heard nothing but praise for this novel, so I am looking forward to reading it. I think I will enjoy the prose in this book; you picked wonderful quotes.
Thank you. I think you will love this one, it’s beautifully written. The final quote, the one where she cuts her father’s hair – it really got to me.
What a lovely review, this sounds like a beautiful book. Definitely going on this year’s birthday list :)
Thanks, Cathy. I would be really interested to hear what you think of it. Others have likened Costello’s prose to that of Colm Toibin, but I haven’t read enough of him to give an informed view on any comparisons. I think you’d be in a good position (certainly better placed than me) to say how you think Academy Street fits into the landscape of Irish literature.
Can’t believe although it’s 3 months or so since I read this, I know your review captures the story & essence of Academy Street perfectly… Definitely one that lingers!
Have you read any of her short stories? Her collection The China Factory, first released in 2012, is being rereleased in May. Again she deals with key events in ordinary lives deeply & deftly.
Tess will be hard to forget that’s for sure. I haven’t read any of Costello stories – it sounds as if you rate them highly. Great to hear that a reissue of The China Factory is on the way – makes perfect sense based on the success of Academy Street.
It’ll be interesting to see what she does in the future too – another novel or a return to short stories?
There’s a great interview with her & Paul McVeigh in The Word Factory… Very insightful:
Many thanks for sharing this link, Poppy. I’m going to save it to read over the weekend (was hoping to get to it this afternoon but time got the better of me).
I’m so glad you enjoyed this, Jacqui. I’m still astonished that it wasn’t included on the Baileys longlist – it seemed a dead cert to me. Many thanks for the link.
You’re very welcome, Susan. As far as the Bailey’s longlist goes, I’ve only read the Ali Smith (which I loved) and Elizabeth is Missing, so it’s difficult for me to say…I guess it’s hard to predict these things!
Ditto, why didn’t it make the Bailey longlist? Loved your choice of quotations. May I add this link to my Q&A with the author http://annegoodwin.weebly.com/mary-costello.html
Yes, do feel free to add to add it to your post, Anne – thank you. I could have chosen several other quotes as Costello’s prose is beautiful – so spare yet so effective.
As I was saying to Susan, I find it almost impossible to give a view on the Baileys as I’ve only read How to be both and Elizabeth is Missing!
I have this book on hold at the library – I can’t wait to read it!
Well, I hope you like it, Naomi! I’ll keep an eye out for your review.
Sounds excellent Jacqui – I keep hearing good things about this one!
It’s a strong debut – a quiet story with a real intensity of feeling. I think it’s quite different to the types of books you tend to read, Karen, so it’s a little difficult for me to predict how you might fare with this one…
While it sounds like an excellent debut. This isn’t quite my read, but thanks for the review.
I think that’s a fair call, Guy. I’m not convinced that Academy Street would be a good fit for you.
I have heard many positive comments about this book. I am intrigued by the movement of Irish immigrants to New York, a move my mother’s family made in another era, the mid-1800s. I read shamefully few women writers but this one keeps coming to attention. For later of course. :)
Oh, that’s interesting to hear. I’m quite intrigued by the emigration theme too as my mother, who was born in Ireland, moved to England in the early sixties when she married my father. My mother’s life turned out quite differently to Tess’ experience of New York, but Academy Street got me thinking about her childhood in Ireland. Tess would have been seven or eight years younger than my mother, so they came from the same era and culture. Families rarely discussed death at that time; everything was internalised, and emotions were buried…Tess’ childhood rang true for me.
Academy Street is worth a look (once you’ve worked your way through the IFFP longlist, of course). It’s a good debut. The style will suit some readers but not others – the quotes should give you a good feel as to whether it would work for you.
I have just bought this after a recommendation by a friend. Looking forward to it.
Cool! I think you’d like it, Ali. It’s a quiet story, beautifully told. Let me know how you get on with it – I’ll keep an eye out for your review.
This is one of those books I’ve picked up and put down again God knows how many times. I thought it might be a poor man’s version of Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn or Nora Webster both of which I loved! The excerpts and your review tell me I might be wrong – next time I pick it up I will leave the shop with it!
Haha, I’ve done a similar thing myself in the past! I’d be very interested to know how it compares with Colm Toibin’s novels, Col, as I haven’t read enough of him to give a view. Nora Webster is in my TBR pile, but I’ll probably leave it for a few months just to put a bit of space between the Costello and another book in a similar style/tone. Brooklyn is another I ought to get to at some point.
That said, I think Academy Street is more than strong enough to stand on its own – it’s a very good debut. I wouldn’t say it’s my favourite novel of the year, but I admired it very much. Costello’s prose is very spare, but deceptively affecting. I don’t know how she manages to do it, but she makes you feel as if you are privy to Tess’ inner thoughts and feelings (even though it’s written in the third person). Let me know how it goes if you do give it a try.
Thanks for sharing my link – I’m glad you enjoyed it too. I’m disappointed that it didn’t appear on the Baileys longlist!
You’ve very welcome. Yes, several people have commented on its omission from the Baileys longlist. It’s so difficult to predict these things, isn’t it? Lots of people were tipping Mathias Enard’s Zone for the IFFP longlist, and it’s another one that seems to have been overlooked. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy your IFFP reading with Stu and the other shadowers!
Great review, Jacqui! From what you’ve written, it sounds wonderful. I love how you describe it as a ‘moving story of a quiet life’ – added this one to my to-read list :)
Thanks, Gemma! I think you’d love this book, it feels right up your street. Several others have also described it as a story about a quiet/reserved life, a life lived on the fringes, but no less important for that. It’s deeply moving but never sentimental, quite a delicate balance to pull off.
Great review, Jacqui! I think the comparisons with Brooklyn are inevitable as they share the same basic story – but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a ton of different ways of telling it! I’ve seen it about a lot, and glanced at reviews of it, but I’d no idea it was a debut – either that, or I’d forgotten. From what you’ve quoted, she seems a very poised and assured writer.
Thank you! I haven’t read Brooklyn (not quite sure how it passed me by!) but from what I’ve heard about the storyline I think you’re right – the comparison is inevitable. That said, Academy Street does feel strong enough to stand on its own merits. I like your take home message on Costello’s writing – it’s a very assured debut, and it’ll be interesting to see what she does next.
This sounds wonderful – and a new book in an old tradition perhaps.
Yes, there’s something timeless about the story and Costello’s prose style. I think you’d like it.
This sounds really good. It seems perfect for Irish reading month.
I am a glutton for strong emotion in books so the melancholy that you mention is ironically something that I would likely enjoy.
Yes, I wanted to review something for Cathy’s Reading Ireland month, and this one seemed to fit the bill. (It was a case of searching my shelves as I’m reading from my TBR right now!) It’s a good one if you’re after something quiet and deeply felt. Others have compared Costello’s prose style to that of Colm Toibin – it’s in that kind of space.
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I’ve read a couple of Costello’s short stories and quite enjoyed them so I may pick this up at these being common experiences. As you noted, emotions and emotional events were dealt with by burying them and hoping they’d go away. I’m sure I’ll find this sooner rather than later on the charity shop shelves. Irish novels are easier to find than any others.
Yes, that aspect of Tess’ story felt very true to life. I’m sure you’ll be able to pick up a copy in the charity shops – the paperback came out at the beginning of March so there should be plenty of copies about. Interested to hear what you think of it, Seamus.
It’s difficult not to think about Brooklyn by Toibin when reading your review.
I’m not sure I’m up for another one about the shy Irish girl moving to New York.
Brooklyn’s the obvious comparison, definitely (although I’ve yet to read it myself).
That’s fair enough – I don’t think this novel’s going to appeal to every reader. Sometimes it’s better to try something new or different!
This novel seems to have received a lot of praise but I’m not sure it’s for me. I read Brooklyn years ago and, while I didn’t find it terrible or anything, I equally wasn’t particularly taken with it. I do wonder whether there are innate reading prejudices which even the best writers struggle to break through!
Possibly…I might be at risk of perpetuating another prejudice here, but I think this is a novel that will probably appeal more to women than men. That’s not to say male readers won’t like Academy Street or get something from it, but the subject matter and Costello’s style almost certainly won’t suit every reader.
It’s a very good debut, but I agree I don’t think it’s for you. I’d rather sell you on that Joan Didion debut I reviewed the other week: Run River! ;)
I saw Mary Costelloe being interviewed at a Dublin literary festival and found her views on writing very insightful. Also read the China Factory and liked it so I’ll give this one a try. Thanks for the review, another book to add to the ever expanding reading pile!
Sounds like a very interesting event. This novel is well worth a try especially if you enjoyed her short stories. (Sorry to add to your TBR pile, it never ends doesn’t it?). It looks as if Canongate are planning to re-issue The China Factory so I’ll have to look out for a copy – one to add to my own TBR tower at some point!
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It sounds good, but maybe also that it suffers from that gloom so common to Irish writing. Sensitive people, suffering silently. Beautifully written but quiet. At the same time, you do seem very taken by it. Are you planning to read more Mary Costello?
That’s a fair point, I think. There isn’t quite the same sense of life opening up here as there is in Toibin’s Brooklyn, for example. That said, it’s a book that still sits well in my memory, so yes, I probably would read another by Costello. (Her prose style is very gentle.) There’s a collection of short stories — The China Factory — which sounds interesting, but I might wait for another novel (assuming there’s one on the way).
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I’m here via your comment on my review of The River Capture… and how interesting it is to see that there are more similarities than I had guessed at. The traumatised child is in this novel too, also mute after a death. And a pervasive retreat into solitariness too.
I wonder if there are events in Costello’s life that have contributed to these preoccupations…
One can but wonder…she certainly seems very interested in our emotional responses to these situations. I suspect Costello would be a very interesting author to see at a literary event; the discussion of her influences and creative process would be fascinating in itself.
Yes, though perhaps the solitariness which she writes so well might be related to a strong sense of privacy, which can be awkward in a public interview…
That’s a fair point…
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