Academy Street by Mary Costello

Sometimes there’s perfection to be found in the most ordinary of things. Such is the case with Mary Costello’s short novel, Academy Street.

I don’t mean to imply that Academy Street is an ordinary book. Rather, it’s the story of Tess, a woman who has a reasonably ordinary life. The story is told through descriptive snapshots of Tess’s life over four decades, beginning with the sudden death of her mother when Tess is aged seven.

“She pulls and drags on the hems of the dresses and skirts, bringing them towards the light. She is almost crying. There is no blue dress. Her mother is wearing it in the coffin. Then she remembers that her mother is no longer in the chapel. She is down in the ground now. Or up in Heaven.”

We move through Tess’s childhood and adolescence, her training to become a nurse and then her journey from rural Ireland to New York, where she lives on Academy Street and raises her son.

Academy Street is essentially a story of losses and gains, told in so many ways – the loss of her mother, her voice, her virginity. The gain of independence, a child, friendship. Costello writes in the third person yet still manages to make the story intimate – you’re privy to Tess’s thoughts and vulnerabilities.

“There were people who could assist, direct her – the word was procure – if she had the courage to ask. But never in her whole life had she had one iota of courage. She had sought, always, silent consent for everything she had done.”

“She lay awake, dried-out salt deposits on her cheeks. She had prolonged hope to almost unendurable limits. He was gone.”

Most particularly, you feel Tess’s loneliness, the intensity of which hits hard in the final chapters (sorry, there will be no spoilers from me). There’s little joy and few triumphs in this story but it’s far from a depressing reading experience – each moment is exquisitely told, Costello focusing on seemingly insignificant details that together, create a rich and earnest story.

“She knew now there were only a few moments, ever, in one’s life, when one is understood.”

4/5 Be prepared to be crushed.

“The pale sun streamed in, fell on the pot of jelly, and for a second she felt herself halted. In all her life she had never really known what to do or how to act.”


5 responses

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