Costello’s debut 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.
Tess is considered too young to attend her mother’s funeral – she must stay at home for the day. Tess is seven at the time, and we get the sense that her family have told her very little about her mother’s death. When she sees the coffin being manoeuvred down the stairs Tess realises 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. She is deeply affected by the loss of her mother. Tess’ father is strict and taciturn; her closest friends are her older sister, Claire, and 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 stage in Tess’ life her beloved sister, Claire, has moved to New York. Each time Tess returns to Easterfield, the family home, she notices the changes: Mike Connolly has moved on, too old and ill to tend the farm any longer; the family’s dog has passed away; 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. (By now we are in the early 1960s.)
The remainder of the novel concerns itself with Tess’ life in New York. She moves in with her Aunt Molly and another boarder, Fritz. As the months pass, Tess begins to get accustomed to the rhythm of the city. She finds a nursing job at the hospital; she 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. 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 – it’s as if we have near complete access to her thoughts and emotions. This next quote should help illustrate the style – 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.
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. Prior to flying 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.
Academy Street is published by Canongate. Source: personal copy (eBook). Book 14/20 in my #TBR20.