ACADEMY STREET by Mary Costello
Date: March 20, 2015
Details: Reading Group Read
‘With extraordinary devotion, Mary Costello brings to life a woman who would otherwise have faded into oblivion amid the legions of the meek and the unobtrusive.’
Academy Street is the heart-breaking and evocative story of one woman’s life spanning six decades. Tess’s childhood in 1940’s rural Ireland is defined by the sudden death of her mother. Later, in New York, she encounters the ferocious power and calamity of love, and the effects of catastrophic fate. The novel resonates with the rhythms of memory and home as well as those of America’s greatest city.
This is an intimate story about unexpected gifts and unbearable losses, and the perpetual ache for belonging. It is exquisitely written and profoundly moving.
I’m not entirely sure what to say about this book. It was short and it was easy enough to read. There were moments and sentences that made me pause. And yet, as a reading experience this book and the story in it left me cold. I didn’t really care about Tess’s life and everything that (doesn’t) happen to her because to me it seemed as if the author, purposefully, kept me at a distance; as if she didn’t want me to get too involved in Tess’s life. Of course, 177 pages is not a lot when you’re telling a story spanning seven decades. On the other hand, even the incidents in her life that were related in more detail seemed to be purposefully kept vague.
Reading this book, to me felt a bit like watching a documentary in which all the facts were stated without too much attention to detail or the emotions associated with those details.
The reader follows Tess through her life. The first part of the book deals with Tess’s childhood. We first meet her age seven, when her mother dies. We are with her as she goes to school, boarding school, hospital in Galway and Dublin to train as a nurse. We subsequently follow Tess to America where she falls in love for the first time ever and acts on the emotion. While a relationship with the man in question is never on the cards, she does end up with a life-long commitment as a result of her one-night-stand.
This book seemed intent on tripping me up. We get a lot of detail about seemingly insignificant details - for example, why did we need to know about the rat and the teenager trying to get it out of the hole it flees into? When I read the scene I thought it might have significance later on in the story, however if it did, I missed it.
I really wasn’t happy about what happened to Theo. I can’t help feeling this particular event has become the ‘go-to’ climax when an author needs a dramatic conclusion or plot development and I for one am getting a bit tired of it by now.
Having said all of the above, there were a few sentences and descriptions in this book which made me stop and think.
“And his sorrow, for all that is lost, lying silent within him.” - Tess when she cuts her father’s hair.
“Being among people left her feeling lonely, even, at times, endangered. She felt divided from others. Their talk, their dreams seemed to her incidental, artificial, something that had to be got through en route to the real conversation, the heart of the matter.”
Chapter eleven: The lines that sum up the book for me: In the telling it did not seem so bad. She even laughed at times. It was not that it was funny, but neither was it tragic. It was as if she were recounting someone else’s life, from long ago.”
“There did not seem to be enough hours or days or years left in her life to read all she wanted to read.”
“Oh, honey, when it comes to the heart, it ain’t about men or women, but people.” - Willa
Overall this was an easy read, containing a few moments of pure genius, which left me mildly dissatisfied by the time I finished it.