Book Review: Academy Street by Mary Costello | More2Read

Academy Street by Mary Costello



“There was, in her nature, a certain passivity, an acquiescence that was ill-suited to change or transformation, as if she feared ruffling fate or rousing to anger some capricious creature that lay sleeping at the bottom of her soul.”

Ron Rash a fine writer, wrote: “Intensely moving but never sentimental, Academy Street is a profound meditation on what Faulkner called ‘the human heart in conflict with itself.’ In Tess Lohan, Mary Costello has created one of the most fully realized characters in contemporary fiction. What a marvel of a book.”
And yes he couldn’t be more right, also a human heart at conflict with the trials of the world and Like that one “portrait of an artist” by James Joyce, I feel this is a portrait of a great woman of resilience and forbearance.
A portrait from childhood to motherhood, through trials that are heavy for any heart.
This tale told with precision and clarity, immersed into a world of the main protagonist Tess, one that would have otherwise been surpassed in silence for not of that great blessing of narrative prose.
This was an emotional experience evoking sensation with words to the reader a passage of time coming alive on the page.
Some readers may come away haunted by the character of this page and some may look in the darkness in this tale and wonder from where exactly the silver lining lay and others may relate to other Tess’s and Academy streets in the world and that the world was that less lonely for a time.
Despite it all, despite all that her heart bares, she is calm, a forbearing memorable character, one that would make James Joyce and William Faulkner happy to find being recreated in modern fiction.
This has just the right words, the right sentences, the right clarity, the right descriptions, the right characters, the right number of pages that will have you read right through it in one continuous motion.
One that might get the right recognition it needs, I hope.


“She tried to make good what was terrible. She tried in her mind to tenderise it, beautify it.”

“Tess has not given much thought to her mother in recent times. Her face is fading from memory. She tries to picture her mother in these rooms, touching and dusting things, curtains, cushions, softly closing doors. She glances around the room. A feeling sometimes rises in her: the sense of things being alive. When she walks into the coach-house or the cow-house she has the feeling of having just interrupted something. Lately the thought that all the things around her, the things that matter, and move her—the trees and fields and animals—have their own lives, their own thoughts, has planted itself in her. If a thing has a life, she thinks, then it has a memory. Memories and traces of her mother must linger all over the house—in rooms and halls and landings. The dent of her feet on a rug. On a cup, the mark of her hand. She wonders if on certain warm nights, when the whole house is sleeping, her mother’s soothing self returns, or memories of her return, bringing comfort to things, and promise for their patient waiting. Outside too, the small yard, the fowl-house—do they miss her? Does the laurel tree remember sheltering her? Tess looks down at her hands. Even as she has these thoughts she knows they are not something she will ever put into words.”

“In the city she felt the stir of anxiety on the streets, and day by day it entered her. On the TV, missiles, warheads, ships steaming towards Cuba. The end of the world. Fritz sat quiet and sombre. In the mornings she felt the foreboding, the impending doom, gigantic explosions and firestorms flashing across her mind. She thought of home, her father, Evelyn in a houseful of kids, danger floating close. No one was safe. One day she saw a rich woman emerge from a building, usher children into a taxi. Everywhere an exodus, people holding their breaths, looking at one another. As if we are all brothers and sisters, Tess thought. One night the president addressed the nation. She was mesmerised by his beauty, his pain, as if the words themselves afflicted him. Thank you and good night.”

“Month by month in that first year Tess discovered a rhythm to her life in the city. The early-morning rise, the subway ride downtown, the day spent among patients and colleagues on the ward. On Sundays when she was off duty she went to Mass with her aunt Molly at the chapel of St Elizabeth’s Hospital. On other days she went to the library on West 179th Street and browsed the bookshelves and sat at a table reading. She came to understand that she could live almost anywhere, so long as there was someone of hers—her own kin—there.”

“She looked out of windows. She drifted, distant and composed, through each working day, the routes and rhythms of trains and subways, streets and corridors, already set into her neural grid. Days off she spent in the library, vaguely dreaming, vaguely sick, or in the park, staring at men walking home from work. In the apartment the fan whirred and she looked out and examined the day.”

“Nothing was more fully or finely felt, ever again, as the days and nights of that first summer with the child. Her eyes were permanently trained on his and his were locked on hers, a flow of wondrous love streaming between them. Flesh of my flesh, blood of my blood. She took him into her bed at night, wanted to put him back inside her. In the morning she shaded his face from the sun slanting through the blinds. She put soft seamless clothes on him, so that no harshness would touch his skin. She did not ever want to leave the apartment or break the spell. She wanted no interruption, no sight or sound or dissonance from the world to dull his radiance or endanger him.”

“That night in her kitchen, she said it again, love child. Born against the odds, more hard-won, more precious, than all others. She had not elected to be a mother. In the next room the child whimpered. She listened, waited for him to return to sleep. She would have liked to have the father there beside her, for him to hear that whimper too. The memory of his face returned. The memory of his beauty hurt her mind. On the radio Billie Holiday began to sing. More than you know. She thought of the city beyond the apartment, lights twinkling in high-rise buildings all around her. Inside, nests of families. He could not give what he had not got. She began to weep. She knew that a great part of love was mercy. What she wished for then, what she wanted more than anything else, was for all ultimate good to come to him.”

“Over the years, over long winter nights and summer afternoons, Tess found a new life in books. As if possessed of a homing instinct she would often leave her hand on a title on a library shelf or in a book bin outside a bookstore that somehow magically fitted her at that moment. The mere sighting of a book on her hall table or night stand as she walked by, the author’s name or title on the spine, the remembrance of the character—his trials, his adversity—took her out of ordinary time and induced in her an intensity of feeling, a sense of union with that writer. Another vocation, then, reading, akin, even, to falling in love, she thought, stirring, as it did, the kind of strong emotions and extreme feelings she desired, feelings of innocence and longing that returned her to those vaguely perfect states she had experienced as a child. She was of the mind now that this evocation, this kind of dream-living was sufficient, and perhaps, in its perfection, preferable to the feeble hopes embedded in reality.”

“It was not that she found in novels answers or consolations but a degree of fellow-feeling that she had not encountered elsewhere, one which left her feeling less alone. Or more strongly alone, as if something of herself—her solitary self—was at hand, waiting to be incarnated. The thought that once, someone—a stranger writing at a desk—had known what she knew, and had felt what she felt in her living heart, affirmed and fortified her. He is like me, she thought. He shares my sensations.”

Reviewed by Lou Pendergrast on 25 November 2014