The River Capture by Mary Costello: Madness, Joyce and obsession

Cover image Mary Costello’s Academy Street was one of my books of 2014. The story of one woman’s attenuated life, I loved it for its small canvas and pared back prose, including it in both my Man Booker and Women’s Prize for Fiction wish lists. It popped up again here earlier in the week as one of my Five Novellas I’ve Read. You can imagine, then, how much I was looking forward to The River Capture, slightly daunted when I read that it was an homage to James Joyce, but still keen nevertheless. Costello’s second novel is about Luke O’Brien, a teacher in his thirties who has taken a career break to write about his beloved Joyce but who seems to be getting nowhere.

Luke returned to the family farm four years ago. He’s alone apart from his aunt Ellen whose bungalow is within waving distance. Luke lives on the rent from the family’s fields, determined to drive a hard bargain with the farmer whose cattle now graze them. He does everything but write, turning over all manner of things in his mind, constantly returning to Joyce and his characters. He wanders into town for his shopping, visits his aunt, talks about their family, marked by tragedy, and looks after his adored pregnant cat. One day a young woman appears asking a favour. Her uncle can no longer look after his dog and Ruth has been told that Luke might take him in. They fall to talking, exchanging family histories, sharing lunch and a little wine. Ruth leaves Paddy with Luke, promising to come back soon. When she does, their connection deepens, Ruth a little taken aback at Luke’s frankness about his sexuality. Long emails are exchanged then a weekend away and Luke begins to dare to hope for happiness, even taking Ruth to meet Ellen. It’s after that meeting that a bombshell is dropped, a secret revealed, and an ultimatum delivered precipitating an episode of madness that seems to have been flickering at the edges of Luke’s consciousness for some time.

The River Capture was something of a curate’s egg for me, delicious in the main but with a long stream of consciousness section which veered away from the linear narrative I’d become absorbed in. I should mention that I’ve never managed to finish one of Joyce’s novels and I suspect therein lies the problem.

The first part of Costello’s book had me transfixed with its gorgeous word pictures of the countryside and its portrait of a man caught up in obsessions, skittering from idea to idea. Luke is firmly rooted in family, breaking off his university studies to nurse his sick aunt and then caring for his mother. The farm is freighted with memory which unspools in Luke’s mind as he walks the land and looks around his house. The passages in which he grapples with the awful dilemma with which he’s faced are full of memories, family history, abstruse knowledge – one thought triggering another, often on an entirely different topic. It’s unsettling to read, a vivid depiction of a disordered mind, but it’s a very long passage and I found myself getting lost in it. So, perhaps not quite what I was hoping for although there’s a great deal that I enjoyed. I suspect if you’re a Joyce fan you might think differently.

Canongate Books: Edinburgh 2019 9781782116431 272 pages Hardback

14 thoughts on “The River Capture by Mary Costello: Madness, Joyce and obsession”

  1. I got 40-something pages into this and set it aside, but I do intend to go back to it before the end of the year. I’d agree that it maybe takes more interest in and familiarity with Joyce than I possess, but I still find Costello’s writing beautiful.

  2. Very interesting to read your take on this. I had a feeling it might be something of a curate’s egg after the early reviews started to appear in the press, one or two of them being somewhat mixed to say the least. (I also caught a discussion about it on R4’s Saturday Review a few weeks ago in which the reviewers expressed significant reservations.) A pity, as Academy Street was so focused in its storytelling as well as being beautifully written. This sounds more ambitious in terms of its narrative and structure but maybe not quite as strong in terms of the execution?

    1. It’s so different from Academy Street. Often lyrically beautiful but I felt that she’d lost control of it in that very lengthy stream of consciousness passage. Perhaps it’s the result of paying homage to what’s clearly one of her literary heroes.

  3. I have never read any Joyce – I feel a bit daunted by it, to be honest. But perhaps I should put my big girl pants on and give him a try! Then I could be smug about approving or disapproving of homages such as this one lol. I really like the sound of Academy Street by the way. 🙂

  4. Pingback: Imitation Is the Sincerest Form of Flattery: Costello, O’Shaughnessy & Smyth – Bookish Beck

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