Academy Street by Mary Costello


This short novel about the life of an Irish woman who moves to New York in 1962 will be in my top ten for the year. It begins with the death of Tess's mother when Tess was an 8-year-old; joy goes out of the house and her dour father withdraws his meager love. She finds comfort in her sisters, the dog, and Mike Connolly who works on their farm but even so she has lost the ability to speak.

She looks in [the coach house] and sees Mike Connolly reaching to hang the horse collar up on a hook. When he turns and sees her, he gets a little fright. Then his eyes soften, but he says nothing. A time will come when no one will talk to her at all, or even look at her. She is a disappearing girl.

It is Mike's kind teasing that enables her to speak again.

When she is in her early twenties she trains to be a nurse for two years in a hospital in Dublin and falls into that routine comfortably. She lives a quiet life and avoids social gatherings.

The shyness she feels among others and the terrible need to fit in cause her such anxiety that when the event arrives the prospect of going amoung people renders her immobile, disabled, sometimes physically sick. 

She makes her way to New York where her sister Claire lives and she is able to pick up her solitary insulated life again. She and another Irish immigrant move into an apartment on Academy Street in the extreme northern part of Manhattan together where she lives for many years, long after her roommate left. She falls in love with someone she met in the Irish community who is drawn to her, but has higher expectations for a mate. Their one intimacy leaves her pregnant and she doesn't see him again. Her son Theo brings her joy, but of course he grows up and once again she has her solitary life. 

Throughout the book one wonders, along with Tess herself, the effect of the death of her mother on her unhappy life and the lives of her siblings. When she thought about a life in Ireland, she thought of

the restraint, the stasis. She could never have kept Theo. It seemed to her now to be a place without dreams, or where dreaming was prohibited. Here, life could be lived at a higher, truer pitch. Though her own was a timid life, there was, since Theo's birth, a yearning towards motion and spirit and vitality.

For most of this book, I felt the absence of the dramatically changing times in New York during the 1960s and 1970s. But the author captured 9/11 in a heart-stopping way:

She felt a strange surreal calm sitting in front of the TV all evening. Over and over she watched two planes with glinting wings fly into skyscrapers, from a sky so blue it did not look real. Then the skyscrapers buckling, collapsing, folding under. People on the streets, their hands on their mouths, looking up in disbelief. People fleeing, enveloped in ash, as rivers of smoke pursued them through the streets. Everyone running, the cameras running, crowds crossing bridges, getting off the island.

I have failed to capture why this book made such an unpromising life so real and important, but Tess did become that for me. 

Mary Costello, Academy Street, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2015, 160 pages (I read the kindle version). It's not available in the libraries here yet, but is available through Amazon.

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