Irish – and Irish-American – writers seem to specialise in a particular style of pared-back, elegant prose from which shines out the occasional lyrical gem: William Trevor, John McGahern, Colm Tóibin, Sebastian Barry, Jennifer Johnston, Elizabeth Bowen, Deirdre Madden, Alice McDermott… I could go on. Mary Costello joins that (very long) list with her debut novel, Academy Street, which has all those stylistic hallmarks suffused with the same quiet melancholy that characterises so much of the finest Irish writing.
Spanning almost sixty years, it begins, and ends, with a funeral. Seven-year-old Tess Lohan is lying on a rug watching the evening sun play on the walls of the living room of her home. A blackbird flies through the open window, tears a little paper from the wall and carries it off to line its nest. Tess watches in wonder then hears her family upstairs as they struggle to move the coffin. Lost in the moment, Tess has forgotten and now must remember that she no longer has a mother. The Lohan children cope as best they can, their father made irascible with grief. As Tess grows up, a bright girl whose brush with sickness cuts short her education, she longs to leave the family farm training as a nurse in Dublin then following her sister Claire to America where she settles in New York City. Friendship is not easy for her, always a little outside of things she aches for the intimacy of connection and thinks, fleetingly, that she has found it. Her life is an attenuated one, marked by a deep yearning for an affinity, becoming ‘herself, her most true self, in those hours with books’.
This is a heart-wrenching book. Reading it, you long for joy in Tess’s life, a closeness that will ease her loss and longing. Hers is a life led quietly, never quite making the warm connections that come so easily to her friend Willa. Costello’s careful prose matches her subject perfectly, Tess’s sudden bright moments of empathy and understanding shining out like a beacon. The elderly man she tenderly nurses through his last days recognises the ‘essential loneliness’ they both share, telling her that ‘I could fit my whole life on one page. I could write it all down on a single page.’ A fine novel, best read when cheerful.