ACADEMY STREET by Mary Costello (Canongate Books, 2014)
Mary Costello’s bold and compassionate debut novel initially gives the impression it will be an uplifting life story of female empowerment.
It begins in the 1940s and is set in Western Ireland. In this time and place we meet Tess, aged 8, immediately after the sudden death of her beloved mother.
The bewilderment and uncertainty this loss produces is brilliantly evoked as is the child’s difficult relationship with her harsh and uncommunicative father.
Surely things can only get better and with Angela’s Ashes in mind you envisage emigration from Ireland to America to be the harbinger of hope and good fortune.
In the 1960s, Tess follows her sister to begin a new life as a nurse in New York. At first things seem to pan out well for this a young, sensitive and passionate woman who was “ready to be transformed” .
Then real life happens.
You get the sense that things are not going to end happily when. during one low point, she reflects “freedom of choice, that is the cause of all anxiety”.
“There is in some of us, an essential loneliness”, says one of her old patients on his death bed. He sees this trait in Tess and he’s not wrong.
Weaving this tale of ordinary sadness with world shattering events of the assassination of JFK in 1963 and 9/11 gives a specific context to what is ultimately an unflinching portrait of debilitating isolation and deep longing.
Readers have made comparisons with ‘Stoner’ by John Williams and Ian McEwan’s ‘On Chesil Beach’ and like those novels this a story with a broad sweep but a narrow focus which ends up being both profoundly moving and distressingly credible. I cried.