Academy Street: A Novel

  • By Mary Costello
  • Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • 160 pp.
  • Reviewed by Emily Jeanne Miller
  • May 1, 2015

The portrait of a woman waiting to live.

Academy Street: A Novel

We first encounter Tess Lohan, the protagonist of Mary Costello’s atmospheric and admirable first novel, Academy Street, as a little girl on the night she loses her mother. Tess is waiting for something — she’s too young to know exactly what — to happen as she lies on the dining-room rug.

While she studies the Adam and Eve wallpaper, a blackbird enters through the open window. “It flies around and around and she smiles, amazed, and opens her arms for it come to her.” Instead, it settles by the window and, pecking at the wall, tears off a strip of the paper with its beak before flying away. “She looks after it, astonished.” Moments later, her mother’s coffin is carried down the stairs.

It’s often said that the first few pages of a work of fiction teach you how to read it. This maxim definitely applies to Academy Street. So much of the novel is encapsulated in this opening vignette: not only Costello’s plainspoken yet lyrical style, or the enchanted, slightly surreal mood with which she imbues each scene, but also Tess’s spiritual isolation, her passive nature, and her perpetual ability to be awed by the world.

Tess, we learn quickly, is a lonely soul. Her sisters are older, her brother just a baby, and with her mother gone and her grief-stricken father remote, impenetrable, and a little frightening, she spends most of her childhood alone, or with Mike Connolly, the hired man, or Captain, their dog. Perhaps it’s here, in her early years, that the seeds of the timid nature she displays as an adult are sown. The writing in these chapters is quietly exquisite, deeply affecting, and sometimes even dazzling, without ever calling attention to itself.

A defining feature of Academy Street is compression, a necessity given that it covers most of Tess’s life in a scant 145 pages, and Costello displays great skill at moving swiftly through time. Especially in Tess’s early life, the passage of time is almost seamless; the narrative is graceful and fluid, alternating between exposition and richly dramatized scenes that do an excellent job of illuminating Tess’s world, and who she is. After a haunting encounter with a local tinker’s child, for example, Tess goes mute. Already introverted and fearful, she withdraws almost completely into herself, not speaking for months, until finally, with a sweet, playful marriage proposal, Mike Connolly brings her speech back. All of this unfolds over the course of roughly two pages.

In her early 20s, Tess leaves Ireland for America; in New York she works as a nurse, and at the hospital and in all realms of her life, she mostly observes. Like her childhood, her adult life is lived largely internally. Alternately depressed and ebullient, she sees beauty in unexpected places and is sometimes overcome by it, at times nearly paralyzed. She exists on the periphery, watching others live, waiting for things to happen to her, waiting to be changed. This — the idea that Tess is waiting for something external to define her — is stated explicitly, several times, over the course of the novel.

In one such instance, she has been in New York for a few months and, “Walking along the street, for no reason, she began to cry…When her tears passed she saw things clearly. Each person’s face, the nose and eyes, the buttons on their shirts, the shivery pattern of leaves. Beauty everywhere. After a little distance a space began to open inside of her, the aftermath of pain. She stood on the sidewalk, as in a dream. Silence. Light. She was ready to be transformed.”

Tess, in adulthood, is like a twig in the current of her own life, swept along by external forces, pushed and pulled by various tides. At times her extreme passivity can be frustrating. Of what, exactly, is she so afraid?

That particular day, transformation, or the catalyst for it, does arrive: David is an Irish-born lawyer whom Tess meets at a picnic and with whom she becomes infatuated. For weeks she nurses a painful crush, until they spend a single drunken night together and she conceives a child, but David is off to Vietnam the very next day. Months later, she writes him saying she’d like to talk, but (in typical Tess fashion) when she doesn’t hear back, she makes no further attempt to contact him or track him down. She just goes on. She names the baby Theo and sets about raising him alone.

As the novel progresses, the previously masterful balance between exposition and dramatization teeters a bit. The impact of Theo’s arrival, for example, is conveyed through strings of platitudes — possibly in the interest of brevity, but it’s a risky choice. Statements like, “The child’s existence turned a plain world to riches. Her life raised up like this, the child giving point and purpose to each day, the care of him transforming her, widening and deepening her,” tend to feel oversimplified and thus abstract.

As for the story, it’s hard to say whether a lot or very little happens in Academy Street; perhaps because the “action” is mostly internal, and because Tess, our cipher, lives at such a remove from the world that her story has a muted feel. At one point, when she finally shares the secret of Theo’s father with a friend, “it felt as if she were recounting someone else’s life, from long ago,” which is precisely how reading this novel can feel.

Toward the end, a tragedy occurs, and everything up to that point — Tess’s whole life, really — is called into question. In despair, she wants to know: What was the point of it all? This is the question that this quiet, haunting novel ultimately asks.

As for an answer, in the final pages, the story comes full circle. Tess returns to Ireland and, in scenes that echo her youth, we see the cycle of human life, be it profound or utterly meaningless, beginning anew.

Emily Jeanne Miller is the author of the novel Brand New Human Being. She lives and writes in Washington, DC.

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