Academy Street by Mary Costello: ‘A life fitting on one page’

Academy StreetIrish – 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.

15 thoughts on “Academy Street by Mary Costello: ‘A life fitting on one page’”

  1. I like your last line the most. As you know, I loved this book and I found it devastating but – if it’s possible – in a good way. It felt so refreshing to read about a woman’s life that was so lonely without the writer bashing you round the head with it. A fine piece of writing indeed.

    1. It sums up the book for me – no fireworks, not one word wasted, just a quiet acknowledgement of a deep loneliness. It’s the second Friday running that I’ve advised ‘best read when cheerful’ – I seem to be in a melancholic novel phase.

    1. Like so many of those fine Irish writers, Costello punctuates spare prose with occasional glittering images like that blackbird. One of my books of the year, and it looks like one of Naomi’s, too.

  2. A lovely review. I hadn’t heard of this book or author before reading your review but it sounds wonderful. The scene with the blackbird you mention is, for some reason, drawing me to the novel, as well as your points about the prose. Adding this book to the to-read list! Thanks for the recommendation!

    1. Thank you, and you’re welcome, Gemma. It’s certainly a striking start. This is her first novel but she has a short story collection, I believe.

  3. Heard lots of good things about this book and your review confirms I need to read it. I haven’t read any Irish books in ages and need to get back on track. Have added to wish list and will buy when I’m next in a bookshop.

    1. I hope you like it, Kim. She’s from that admirable Tóibin/Trevor/McGahern school of elegant understatement – I’d like to think she was busy on her second novel.

  4. I am a huge fan of Alice McDermott and Deirdre Madden so I should expand my knowledge of Irish authors! I’ll take your advice, though, and do so on a sunny day! Elegant understatement is something I very much enjoy.

    1. It’s my favourite sort of writing! I have my fingers firmly crossed that Mary Costello will bag the Costa First Novel Award.

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