The River Capture by Mary Costello

The River Capture – the second novel from the Irish writer Mary Costello – shares something with its predecessor, the deeply affecting Academy Street, a work of intense beauty and sadness. In both novels, the lives of the central characters are dictated by traumatic events – more specifically, deaths in the family and the feckless actions of men. Capture, however, is a more ambitious novel than Academy Street, particularly in terms of style and form. There is a real sense of Costello’s development as a writer here, something that leaves me excited to see what she produces next…

Central to The River Capture is Luke O’Brien, an unmarried teacher in his mid-thirties, currently on an extended sabbatical from his role teaching English at Belvedere College, a secondary school in Dublin. He is back at Ardboe, the sizeable O’Brien estate in Waterford, a farm that has been in the family for several generations.

Having nursed his beloved Aunt Josie through a terminal illness, Luke is now at a bit of a loose end, endlessly dreaming of James Joyce and his masterpiece, Ulysses, about which he is rather obsessed. Alongside caring for Josie, Luke had intended to use his career break to write his own book on Joyce; or even, in his wildest dreams, to establish an Academy of Excellence at Ardboe, where the entire school curriculum would be drawn from the text of Ulysses. However, despite bursts of intensive research, neither of these plans has come to fruition. Instead, Luke spends his days visiting his elderly Aunt Ellen, whom he is very close to. Ellen – whose house is situated nearby – appears to be Luke’s only living relative, his father and mother having died some years earlier.

Alongside Ellen, there is also the business of the farm to deal with, particularly the land which is coveted by a neighbouring farmer, Jim Lynch. Having helped Luke out financially at a time of grief, Lynch is keen to extend his lease on the land by five years, effectively tying Luke to a long-term commitment he is reluctant to make.

This first section of the novel is fluid and beautifully written, weaving together Luke’s current preoccupations with various memories from the past.

Moments like this he longs to be back in Belvedere. That morning walk, pigeons on the footpath, raucous gulls overhead. Buses pulling out from the kerb spluttering exhaust fumes on passing cyclists. All the lives parallel to his own, all the moments in which different things are simultaneously happening. Horizontal time. Thoughts and musings that seem to go on for hours, but take only minutes. No one understands time. Impossible to measure too. If it weren’t for death, we might not count time at all… (p. 11)

For all the beauty in the rural landscape, there is a noticeable seam of darkness here. Tragedy is everywhere in this novel, marking the lives of those it touches. We hear of the death of Josie’s older sister, Una, who, at the age of ten, fell into the farm’s well and drowned. Unfortunately for Josie, who witnessed the incident when she was a baby, the trauma caused irreparable damage, leaving her mute for two years and mentally disturbed her whole life. There are significant losses too in Luke’s past; the sudden death of his mother following a short sequence of strokes; the miscarriage experienced by his ex-girlfriend, Maeve, in the early stages of her pregnancy; and the void left by Aunt Josie, whose absence remains keenly felt.

Then, out the blue, into Luke’s life comes Ruth, a local lass who is looking to rehouse a dog that used to belong to her uncle. Right from the start, it is clear that Luke is attracted to Ruth, a beautiful woman with green eyes and a gentle manner. Their relationship blossoms in the early weeks, with Ruth travelling back to Waterford at the weekends to meet with Luke while visiting family.

But then, just when Luke appears to be getting his life together, a confrontation occurs, precipitated by Ruth’s introduction to Ellen. While there is nothing Ellen would like more than to see Luke settled, it absolutely cannot be with Ruth. In a pivotal scene – the novel’s midpoint – Ellen reveals that fifty years ago, her life was destroyed by an incident, a devastating accusation involving a member of Ruth’s family. As a consequence, Luke must give up his relationship with either Ruth or Ellen; as far as Ellen is concerned, he cannot have both.

These revelations give rise to a profound disturbance within Luke – a kind of schism in which thoughts race frantically through his head at an alarming rate. As an individual, Luke is highly intelligent, and his susceptibility to mood swings marks him out as bipolar – a point touched upon in the first half of the book.

By use of a dramatic stylistic shift – one that reflects Luke’s passion for the work of James Joyce — Costello skilfully captures the turmoil Luke is experiencing, thereby holding us close to his inner thoughts and feelings. The second half of the novel is presented as a series of questions and answers, rather like a catechism for religious instruction. (While I haven’t read Ulysses, or anything else by Joyce, I understand that this is the technique he uses in the Ithaca chapter of the book, reputedly to great effect.)

Hopefully the following quote will give you a feel for what this looks like in Capture. In this passage, we learn how Luke is susceptible to the ‘noonday demon’, a spirit that prompts a weariness and loathing of life amongst those it enters.  

Enters him? In what form?

Its announces itself with lethargy, torpidity, a wandering mind, thoughts that swing suddenly from the banal to the grandiose, the inflationary, the fantastical, and are frequently punctuated by a mental cataloguing of his own virtues, talents, aptitudes, abilities – all of which, he adduces, have gone entirely unnoticed and unappreciated by others for years (at least since the death of his mother). (p. 153)

In effect, Costello is using this introspective interrogation or Q&A technique to show us how Luke is processing Ellen’s revelations and the impact they will have on his relationships – both with Ruth and with Ellen herself.

On what does he ponder?

On the word ‘mercy’. On Ruth. […] On the loss of her. On the image of her at the other end of the phone. On her suffering. On her mother’s suffering. On the balance sheet of love. On the charge sheet of feeling. On what makes one kind of love more worthy than another. On what places romantic love, in the eyes of society, above the love of an elderly relative. On how the hands of fate can reach across fifty years and stick a knife in him and her and her and her. On the countless difficulties of relationships. On the merits of a solitary life. On the greater possibility of living a good life alone. On the greater possibility of living a spiritual life alone. On how best to occupy himself for the evening and banish from his mind all thoughts of a single, solitary, fateful future. (p. 223)

Capture is a novel in which the sins of one generation are visited upon the next. By refusing to let go of past injustices, Ellen is effectively blighting the lives of those that follow, forcing a degree of suffering onto Luke and Ruth – two individuals who remain innocent in all this, their lives tainted not by their own actions but by those of their forebears.

Alongside this, it is also a dazzling exploration of ideas as Luke’s mind flits unpredictably from one question to another (or from one subject to another within the same inquiry). Costello covers a multitude of topics here including mathematics, genetics, biology, physics, philosophy, motherhood, death, immortality, gender fluidity, animal cruelty, and of course, James Joyce. There are several parallels between Luke and the characters from Ulysess, particularly Bloom and Dedalus.

In the second half of the novel, Costello’s prose gives the narrative a sense of urgency, making it an exhilarating, thought-provoking read.

The novel’s title comes from a geological phenomenon, whereby a river ‘acquires the flow from another river or draining system, usually below it,’ as a consequence of the erosion of the land. When this act of capture occurs, the two rivers effectively become one. Like the lives of the main characters in this book, the course of the captured river is inexorably altered, forcing it in another direction irrespective of its natural will. 

How does he perceive the mind of the river?

Divided, exiled from itself, each half eternally mourning the loss of the other, looking south – nostalgic for the old route, for the whorls of old currents and stone pillows, the original neural way. Longing for reunion. Longing to be known. Longing to be understood. (p. 247)

Despite my lack of familiarity with Ulysses, I found this to be an incredibly impressive novel. Irrespective of any personal preferences for form and style, one has to admire the literary skill and stylistic flourishes on display here. Costello’s ambition and brio are to be applauded, for sure.

For other views on this novel, please see these reviews by Kim and Lisa.  

The River Capture is published by Canongate Books; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.

39 thoughts on “The River Capture by Mary Costello

  1. Brian Joseph

    The connection with Ulysses seems very interesting and a bit odd. Books that are connected to other books often are intriguing for the connections. This one sounds as if the plot is also compelling. Ulysses itself was connected to The Odyssey so there are several layers of connection.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s interesting about the connection to The Odyssey. Showing my ignorance here, but I wasn’t aware of that…

      In what way do you think the connection to Ulysses sounds a bit odd here? The break between the two (very different) styles does come as a bit of a shock, but to my mind it seems very much a reflection of Luke’s state of mind following Ellen’s revelations. So in that respect, it seems to fit with the narrative of the book.

      Reply
  2. A Life in Books

    A bit of a curate’s egg for me. I thought Costello’s depiction of a disordered mind was beautifully done and loved much of the descrpitive writing but she lost me towards the end of the novel. Perhaps it’s because it was the spare, stipped down prose of Academy Street that I so admired. Like you, though, I’m eager to see what she does next. Perceptive review, as ever, Jacqui.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I can understand that, particularly given the way in which Luke’s reflections ricochet from one topic to the next in very quick succession. That’s what I found so dazzling about it though, the sense of now quite knowing where his train of thought was going to take me next. Like you, I loved Academy Street and would have been very happy to read another novel from Costello in a similar vein. But the fact that she’s produced something so ambitious and thought-provoking makes me admire her all the more!

      Reply
  3. kimbofo

    Thanks for the link, Jacqui. I like the way you compare the geological river capture with the two lives of the main characters. I hadn’t thought of it like that.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome, Kim. I’ll be heading over to yours in a little while to read your review, now that I’ve posted my own. :)

      I only thought about the underlying meaning of the novel’s title when I reached the passage at the end. That’s when it struck me as a reflection of the paths our lives can take following a traumatic event. It’s an interesting piece of symbolism, I think…

      Reply
  4. inthemistandrain

    After hearing her on Start The Week yesterday on R4, and now reading your review, this is going on my list.
    Thanks.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, that’s great to hear! I’m glad you like the sound of it. And thanks for the tip about Costello’s appearance on Start the Week. Someone just tweeted me to say the same thing, so I’m looking forward to catching up with it a little later. :)

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I thought it might be a bit too experimental for me as well, but fortunately I loved it! And yes, it’s great to see a real sense of progression in an author’s work. I can’t wait to see where she goes next…

      Reply
  5. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Wonderful review, Jacqui, and the prose seems quite mesmerising. I’ve yet to finish Ulysses, but this sounds like it stands alone in its own right. As for the ‘noonday demon’, I think that’s been getting to me lately… Happy Bloomsday!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’m sure there were several Ulysses references that passed me by due my lack of familiarity with the text; but even so, that didn’t stop me from engaging with Costello’s book. I think the fact that I’d read about the Ulysses homage in advance helped when it came to approaching it, otherwise I might have struggled a bit with the second half – possibly too much of a culture shock compared to the ‘before’ section. Anyway, I’m glad that didn’t happen!

      The noonday demon certainly resonates, doesn’t it? A particularly apt passage for lockdown, I think!

      Reply
  6. Tredynas Days

    Karen just reminded me of the significance of today’s date. I’m not sure this one would be for me; I’m wary of this kind of allusiveness in fiction. Maybe I’m just feeling extra curmudgeonly during lockdown, and craving simplicity and clarity. So ignore this…

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s okay, Simon. It’s not going to be everybody’s cup of tea, particularly given the style. I hear you on the need to simplicity and clarity at the moment, particularly as other aspects of our lives seem fragile and uncertain.

      Reply
  7. heavenali

    Ooh this sounds gorgeous. I remember a friend recommendeding Academy Street to me, but I still haven’t read it. Both novels sound right up my street.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think you would love Costello’s prose style! It has a wonderful rhythm, a beauty and fluidity all of its own. Start with Academy Street and see how you get on. My only caveat would be the sadness – it’s achingly sad but beautifully written. As long as you’re in the mood for something like that you’ll be fine. :)

      Reply
  8. gertloveday

    A homage to Joyce, and obviously Mary Costello loves writing like this and does it well. For me though it didn’t quite work. I lost patience with the length of the question-and-answer section and its extravagance didn’t seem to me to arise very naturally from the loss of the relationship.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think you’re probably in the same camp as Susan on this one. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, sure, and I hear you on the length and focus of the Q&A section, but that’s what I found so thrilling about it. The sense of not quite knowing where it would go next…

      Reply
  9. Claire 'Word by Word'

    I do love the sound of this, I quite enjoy reading novels where there is a reference working within the text, often one I am not familiar with, which adds an element of intellectual intrigue, which one is free to ignore or go off and pursue. I became aware of this after reading Circe, which references The Odyssey and I saw there’d been a new translation by a woman, which I would love to read, for Ulysses is also just a modern retelling of another tale – and one I have not read either.

    I’m so happy to hear you enjoyed this one, I’m looking forward to getting a copy and reading it and deciding whether or not to read that new translation of The Odyssey.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You know, it’s funny. For some reason, you came to mind as I was reading this book, possibly as someone who would enjoy the sense of experimentation with form and style that Costello has used to convey Luke’s story. I think you’d find it a fascinating read – both from an intellectual point of view (there is much to ponder here) and a technical perspective too. And then there’s the link between Ulysses and The Odyssy – that might be an additional layer for you given your fondness for Circe? So, there are many, many reasons why I’d love to hear your thought on The River Capture. I do hope you have a chance to get hold of it!

      Reply
  10. Caroline

    This sounded great until I realised the link to Ulysses. I read it years ago and, like Simon, I’m not so keen on allusive texts. But you certianly piqued my interest and I might have to take a look at her ealier work and it defintely sounds like an author to watch.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, I thought I’d responded to your comment last night, but I can’t see it now, so apologies if this is a duplicate….I can understand your reservations about allusive texts, especially as the influence of Joyce is so central to Luke’s character. Nevertheless, I think you’d like Costello’s writing very much. Academy Street is excellent – beautifully written, yet achingly sad. Well worth the emotional investment if you pick the right moment.

      Reply
      1. Caroline

        No worries. When you get a lot of comments it’s easy to lose the overview.
        It does sound like I would her writing. As for Joyce – Dubliners is one of the best books I’ve ever read. It contains my favourite short story “Araby”.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Dubliners is the Joyce that appeals to me the most, I have to admit – partly because I really enjoyed Enrique V-M’s Dublinesque when I read it a few years ago. It must have been around the time when the novel was up for the International Foreign Fiction Prize (now absorbed into the International Booker).

          Reply
  11. buriedinprint

    How interesting. Ulysses isn’t one I’ve read either, but I can see where the layers here would be even more satisfying if one was even more familiar with that text. And how fun to think that the author is likely just as obsessed with the text as the character she’s invented is obsessed by it. On and on. Another aspect of the Q and A technique that I find interesting is that it necessarily (and both directly and sneakily) pulls us, as readers, further into the story, because we immediately feel like we’re part of a dialogue, even if we were–before hand–feeling more on the margins of everything. Nice, that.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re right! Costello is a massive fan of Ulysess, as evidenced by her participation in this episode of Radio 4’s Start the Week devoted to James Joyce. (I only discovered this when someone mentioned it to me on Twitter after I’d posted my review. Not sure if you’ll be able to access this in Canada, but here’s the link just in case.)

      https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000k2s2

      As for the Q&A technique, I hadn’t thought about it in that context before, but it’s an interesting perspective. It could go either way, I think – involving for some readers, yet distancing for others!

      Reply
      1. buriedinprint

        Very cool, thank you! And, yes, for others who might be wondering too, the link does work. The only time that I’ve run into issues with BBC programming is with video (although I’ve only had reason to try a couple of times) and with older programming (in which case I’m never sure if it’s just not available for me or simply no longer available for anyone).

        That’s a good point–it could push things into the realm of theory rather than flesh-and-blood experience (although of course they’re all imaginary people LOL).

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Oh, great. I’m glad the linked worked okay! A very interesting programme, I thought – particularly the range of advice on how best to approach Ulysses if you’re a newbie and a bit daunted by it. I liked Edna O’Brien’s advice about picking a chapter (e.g. The Sirens) as a potential way in.

          Reply
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