There is a strong tradition of Irish writers—William Trevor, Edna O’Brien and Colm Tóibín come immediately to mind—who can turn the everyday details of an ordinary life into art. Add to these ranks Mary Costello, whose deceptively slender first novel, Academy Street, takes in the full measure of one woman’s quietly tragic life in fewer than 200 pages.
The novel begins and ends with a death at Easterfield, the Lohans’ big old house and farm in the west of Ireland. At age 3, young Tess does not fully understand the circumstances or the implications of her mother’s death, but she feels the loss deeply. A meditative and lonely child, she grows up alongside her older sisters and two brothers, her life unfolding in familiar patterns: She goes away for a time to boarding school, she moves to Dublin to study nursing, an older sister joins the Irish diaspora in New York, and Tess follows a few years later. Tess’ life in Manhattan continues largely in solitude, marked by a brief, hollow love affair and the demands of single motherhood at a time when there was little support for such a choice. As the years pass, the unimaginable will bring Tess to her knees emotionally, even as she continues to endure all with that distinctive variety of Irish fatalism.
Plot is largely secondary for Costello, who is more concerned with providing a portrait of the inner life, a thing she accomplishes with admirable deftness. Indeed, the external chronological touchstones—the Cuban Missile Crisis, JFK’s assassination, Patty Hearst, 9/11—sometimes seem like tacked on, unwelcome distractions, although the latter will play an essential role in Tess’ story. It is a cliché to call a novel haunting, but thanks to Costello’s graceful prose and emotional honesty, Academy Street—which won the Irish Book Award for novel of the year over such heavy-hitters as Tóibín and David Mitchell—certainly stays with you.