Academy Street, the first full length novel from short story writer Mary Costello, received warm but unenthusiastic response from the book club.
The crux of the novel is that it focuses on the life of a woman who might otherwise be missed. Our protagonist Tess is relatively ordinary. This is what make the novel both a worthwhile read but also a little uninspiring. In short chapters the novel takes up less than 200 pages yet covers over five decades of Tess’s life, beginning with the death of her mother in late 1940s Ireland and ending as she returns to the family home for another funeral as a much older, and changed woman.
Location and place take on particular relevance throughout. No matter where she goes or how she ages Easterfield (the farm where she was born) never leaves her mind although her relationship with the place is complicated. A school teacher, and former resident, teaches her about the nineteenth century history of the farm as a famine hospital. It reasserts the truth that a place itself can have history and that as people move on the growth and story of a place continues to develop. When her son Theo is an infant she teaches him the history of the family home. He draws pictures of the place he has never seen. At the same time as she thinks on Easterfield “it seemed to her now to be a place without dreams, or where dreaming was prohibited”. However on her eventual return to Easterfield Tess knew that “she would feel it forever in her bones, every stick and stone of it”. The longing and searching for home never ceases and becomes one of the novels defining themes.
The title refers to her home in New York where she lives with her son Theo, in a fifth floor walk-up above one of her few close friends and confidents Willa. Her happiest days are spent in this apartment with her infant son. Like many other Irish in the middle of the last century, stifled by her home life and the lack of opportunities in the West of Ireland, Tess followed in the footsteps of her older sister and migrated to America in the early 1960s. Here she lived out the rest of her life. On her arrival in New York she walked the streets, each person a stranger but still “they looked at each other. In the look was an acknowledgement, a declaration, an affirmation that everything was finally settled, and the lives being lived here were the right ones, the ideal lives”.
Costello steams through Tess’s life capturing her growth and change over the decades. This allows the reader to follow her as she steps out of the life prescribed for her at Easterfield and into her own life in New York. One effect of this though is that the lack of depth prevents one from growing too close to Tess. However perhaps this fits in with the ethos of Academy Street as many of us walk through life with few defining moments or changes. Tess is very much a relatable character. One the one hand she is always wanting something more, something that seems just outside of her grasp. One the other hand she seems to do little to reach out into the world and create her own opportunities. “Never in her whole life had she had one iota of courage. She had sought, always, silent consent for everything she had done”. Tess is a meek, passive character. She is consistent in temperament from childhood to old age, remaining the one point of certainty in Academy Street. In contrast to this a Guardian review written by Sinead Gleeson suggests that there is a certain autonomy and independence in Tess. That by emigrating she breaks free of the confines of Ireland for the relative freedom of America. A place that allows her to raise her son as a single mother and enables her to live with relative autonomy.
Tess’s relationship with her family make up some of the few interpersonal connections she has in her life. That is with the exception of one love affair that resulted in her son Theo. She is close to her older sister Claire in particular and simply adores her son, yet she seems unable to fully express her emotions. When Claire is having difficulties and has moved away Tess does not visit her even as she falls seriously ill. Further her relations with the rest of her family simply slip through her fingers, never making a permanent mark. Her siblings come and go throughout but the focus remains on Tess. This unusual move by Costello shows a desire to bring into the open a character that would otherwise have stayed in the margins. Tess always feels alone. Isolation runs throughout the novel and this only grows with time: “she [Tess] had always felt separate from people, and lately she had the sense that when she was out of view she disappeared entirely from the minds of others”. She experiences loss and fear that she will never be loved which is something nearly every reader will be able to relate to, to some extent.
Costello’s writing and turn of phrase is the main selling point. She has a knack for description and lyrical language; capturing Tess excellently, without resorting to cliché or stereotypes. Although she can be a frustrating character her reactionary, passive nature is something that many of us share in our less ideal moments. Costello is an assured writer and Academy Street would be the ideal way to pass the time on a long journey
Costa Book Awards Shortlist 2014
Mary Costello, Academy Street (Canongate, Edinburgh, 2014). ISBN 9781782114208. 179pp., Paperback