Tag Archives: Mary Costello

Reading Ireland – My Favourite Books by Irish Women Writers

As some of you may know, March is Reading Ireland Month (#ReadingIreland22), co-hosted by Cathy at the 746Books blog and Niall/Raging Fluff. It’s a month-long celebration of Irish books and culture from both sides of the border – you can find out more about it here.

Over the past few years, I’ve reviewed quite a few books by Irish writers; and given that 8th March is International Women’s Day, I thought I would share some of my favourites by women. (Hopefully these might give you some ideas on what to read if you’re thinking of participating.)

The Hotel by Elizabeth Bowen (1927)

Bowen’s striking debut novel is a story of unsuitable attachments – more specifically, the subtle power dynamics at play among the members of a very privileged set, cast against the backdrop of the Italian Riviera. In many respects, the novel revolves around Sydney Warren, a somewhat remote yet spirited young woman in her early twenties, and the individuals she meets during her break. In some instances, the characters are gravitating towards one another for convenience and perhaps a vague kind of protection or social acceptability, while in others, there are more underhand motives at play.

It all feels incredibly accomplished for a debut, full of little observations on human nature and the social codes that dictate people’s behaviour (there are some wonderful details on hotel etiquette here). If you like Edith Wharton’s ‘society’ novels, The Hotel could well be for you.

The Springs of Affection by Maeve Brennan (from the early 1950s to the early ‘70s)

A stunning collection of stories, all set in the same modest terraced house in the Ranelagh suburb of Dublin in the 20th century. The collection opens with a series of seven short autobiographical pieces that offer brief glimpses of Brennan’s childhood, a broadly happy time despite the political turbulence of the early 1920s. Then we move on to a sequence of stories featuring Rose and Hubert Derdon, a middle-aged couple whose marriage is characterised by an intense emotional distance. Here we see two desperately unhappy individuals locked in a kind of stasis, unable or incapable of reaching out to one another and accepting their respective flaws. Lastly, the third and final section explores another couple with difficulties in their marriage, Martin and Delia Bagot. In contrast to the previous pieces, there is a little more hope here as the Bagots’ relationship is punctuated by occasional moments of brightness.

What sets this collection apart from many others is the cumulative sense of disconnection conveyed through the stories, the layers of insight and meaning that gradually reveal themselves with each additional piece.

Tea at Four O’Clock by Janet McNeill (1956)

A brilliant but desperately sad story of familial obligations, ulterior motives and long-held guilt, set within the middle-class Protestant community of Belfast in the 1950s. The novel’s protagonist is Laura Percival – a rather timid spinster in her forties – who we first meet on the afternoon of a family funeral. The deceased is Laura’s elder sister, Mildred, a woman whose presence still looms large over Marathon (the Percivals’ residence), despite her recent death. This is a novel that delves into the past as developments force Laura to confront a period of her life she has long since buried – more specifically, a series of circumstances that led her to stay at Marathon when the possibility of freedom was so tantalisingly within reach.

A powerful, character-driven novel that focuses on the psychology and underlying motives of different individuals tied together by familial or social bonds, however tenuous. Fans of Anita Brookner, Elizabeth Taylor and Elizabeth Bowen would likely appreciate this.

Academy Street by Mary Costello (2014)

This gorgeous, deeply-affecting novel 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 loss that sets the tone for the decades which follow. Academy Street is a poignant book, the deeply-moving story of a quiet life that plays out firstly in 1950s Ireland and then in 1960s New York. The overall tone is achingly melancholy, but there are moments of intense beauty amidst the solitude and heartache.

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. A beautifully written book from one of my favourite contemporary writers.

Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan (2021)

A superb novella set in New Ross, a town in the southeast of Ireland, in the raw-cold days of the run-up to Christmas 1985. Central to the story is Bill Furlong, a hardworking coal and timber merchant who tries to help his clients where he can – dropping off bags of logs to loyal customers, even when they can’t afford to pay. One day, while delivering coal to the local Convent, Furlong sees something genuinely alarming – a sign that proves hard for him to ignore, despite his wife’s reservations about speaking out.

It’s a beautiful, heartbreaking book about the importance of staying true to your values – of doing right by those around you, even if it puts your family’s security and aspirations at risk. Keegan’s prose is simple, pared-back and unadorned, a style that seems fitting given the nature of the story. Nothing feels superfluous here – every word has just the right weight and meaning.

These Days by Lucy Caldwell (2022)

This deeply-moving novel takes as its focal point a series of attacks – the Dockside Raid, the Easter Raid and the Fireside Raids – that took place in Belfast during WW2. Using these devastating real-life events as a springboard, Caldwell has created a really beautiful novel here – an engrossing, evocative portrayal of the Belfast Blitz, seen through the eyes of the Bells, a fictional middle-class family. Caldwell excels in capturing so many aspects of the raids, both physical and emotional. From the fear as people wait for the bombings to start, to the panic of searching for the missing and those who may have perished, to depicting the crushing damage to homes in vivid, unflinching detail. Moreover, she makes us care about her characters, investing in their respective hopes and dreams, concerns and anxieties – and it’s the depth of this emotional investment that makes this portrayal of the Belfast Blitz so powerful and affecting.

In summary, this is a beautiful, lyrical novel – a deeply moving tribute to the resilience of the Belfast people who lost and endured so much during the dark days of the Blitz. 

Do let me know what you think of these books if you’ve read any of them. Hopefully, I’ll be able to fit in another couple of titles during March, including one by a woman. And if you have any favourites by Irish women writers, please feel free to mention them alongside other comments below – personal recommendations are always welcome.

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.

Academy Street by Mary Costello

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.

Academy street

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.