Mary Costello’s debut novel Academy Street is an excellent follow up to her acclaimed collection of short stories, The China Factory, in 2012. The novel details the quiet and somewhat unremarkable life of Tess Lohan, beginning in 1940’s rural Ireland and expanding to the bustle of New York later, spanning seven decades in total. From the first page we are thrown into Tess’s young life with the funeral of her mother, a loss which demands a wrenching emotional response when read through Tess’s young and inquisitive eyes. This event leads onto a life in which Tess neither strives to be at the centre of attention nor lives to her full potential, and yet her impact on me as a reader is massive and also long-lasting. Due perhaps to the events which follow, the loss and heartbreak that seem destined for her, or owing to Costello’s urgent and moving style of writing, I was hooked on Tess Lohan from the start.
We follow Tess as she grows up on a farm with a stern, grieving father, many siblings and a sort of loneliness which she carries throughout her life. She goes to boarding school but has to drop out due to illness. We begin to think that fate would always look unkindly on young Tess. However, a move to New York sees a different kind of life for the now 18 year old protagonist, and one which brings with it fresh possibilities and also independence. When Tess falls pregnant in a brief romance that results in heartache, a return to Ireland and her family seems desired; yet such a move also represents a backwards step: “…she contemplated an alternative life back in Ireland. A pall grew at the thought of the daily mundane, the restraint, the stasis. She could never have kept Theo. It seemed to her now to be a place without dreams, or where dreaming was prohibited.” The descriptions and contrasts of America and Ireland in the novel are truly captivating, as are its characters. Not just Tess herself but every character in Academy Street seems authentic and intriguing.
In the whirlwind of New York, Tess brings up her son, works as a nurse and befriends a fellow immigrant mother who, unlike Tess herself, is full of life and laughter. Tess experiences all-consuming love and devastating loss. In comparison to others surrounding her, she struggles to bring meaning and substance to her life. As the years drift by she loses many of her loved ones, including in the heart wrenching experience of 9/11; her isolation grows and her life takes on a sort of peaceful melancholy. Yet this is not to say Academy Street is dull read; there is a beauty about Tess’s story which has haunted me since finishing the novel.
The portrayal of difficult relationships is central to this novel, most notably between Tess and her son Theo. His anger at his mother’s passive nature leads to a distance between them which is truly sad to read. However, as a character, Theo’s feelings could have been fleshed out or elaborated on to create a greater understanding of the hostile feelings that he harbours in the Lohan household, and to explain why he had so little forgiveness or understanding for his mother. This being said, Costello crams a lifetime into less than 200 pages to create a deeply touching narration which is hard to put down. Costello writes with an honesty that I’ve rarely experienced before.