Book Review: “Academy Street” — Affirming Life in Fresh and Surprising Ways

This is a powerful, intensely felt short novel about the lives of ordinary people by a very young Irish writer.


Academy Street by Mary Costello, Farrar, Sraus & Giroux, 145 pages, $22

By Roberta Silman

One of the most interesting things about fiction is that it can give a voice to so many kinds of people. Biography and history usually concentrate on the well-known, the accomplished, the very good or the very bad. But what about the ordinary folk whose lives are almost completely obscure both while they are alive and after they are dead? These are the people who interested many of our women writers, starting with George Eliot and Virginia Woolf and continuing through Willa Cather and Elizabeth Bowen and, in our own time, Grace Paley and Alice Munro. They are also the people who interest the Irish men and we can find them in Joyce’s Dubliners, in all of the work of William Trevor (who may be our greatest living writer), and, more recently, in Colm Tóibín.

But how to make these lives vivid and meaningful? In the writers listed above, we are talking not only about their compassion for their characters, but their ability to write prose that is compelling and accessible. Nothing fancy, or what one editor of mine used to called “mandarin,” but prose that never seems to make an effort, prose that can appear artless, but which creates the necessary intimacy between reader and character that makes for great literature.

So it is with great pleasure that I report on a fabulous, exquisite short novel by a very young Irish writer named Mary Costello: Academy Street. In language that is wonderfully precise yet filled with light, Costello tells the story of Tess Lohan, who was born on a farm in Ireland, whose mother dies when she is only seven, who is brought up by her lonely, increasingly rigid father and her older siblings, and who escapes by going to nursing school. In 1962, she takes the plunge and emigrates to New York where her older sister Claire has settled and where she has an Aunt Molly. There she feel free, befriends another nurse, begins to have a social life, but then — the oldest story in the world — becomes pregnant. Here is Tess when she realizes what has happened to her:

She tried to make good what was terrible. She tried in her mind to tenderize it, beautify it. More than anything she wanted to cast off shame. . . . It need not be terrible. There were people who could assist her, 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–as if she were without volition, as if a father or mother or God himself sat permanently on her right shoulder, holding sway over her thoughts and actions. And when consent was not gleaned, or was felt to be withheld, she resumed her position of quiet passivity. It was not this alone she suffered from now, but terror, and a complete paralysis of the soul.

Fate comes to her rescue. After the Kennedy assassination, Tess knows she cannot give up the life growing within her, becomes part of mourning America, makes a good friend, Willa, in her apartment house on Academy Street, and decides to keep the child, thus becoming a single mother of a winsome boy named Theo. Throughout Theo’s childhood, she comes into her own, experiencing joy she never could have imagined. But when Theo turns into a very distant, sometimes surly teenager, she is rendered even more passive than normal, and then, after Theo marries and has children of his own and a reconciliation is being effected, tragedy strikes.

Not a very promising story line, you might think. Yet Costello makes us care about Tess in ways we might not have anticipated so that, by the end of this wrenching book, we love her as unconditionally as we might love a child of our own. One of the most important ways Costello achieves this is by inhabiting Tess’s mind so fully that the outer world almost ceases to exist. Thus, letters — to the father of her child, to her sister Claire who is sick with multiple sclerosis — and conversations — with her Aunt Molly and her boarder Fritz, with Willa and her husband Darius — and concerns — about Theo and her younger brother Oliver who disappears mysteriously after coming to America — are presented with the abruptness they always have in the mind, and some of the “machinery” of a novel becomes irrelevant. To do this a writer must have enormous confidence, which one finds rarely in a debut novel, but Costello has achieved it. Moreover, through these snippets and details she gives us an extraordinary sense of place: in Ireland, in New York, and in California where Claire has moved.

One clue has to how this may have happened is revealed through Tess when she discovers “a new life in books.” There she finds the comfort that has eluded her in life:

It was not that she found in novels answers or consolations but a degree of fellow feeling that she had not encountered elsewhere, one that left her feeling less alone. Or more strongly alone, as if something of herself–her solitary self–was at hand, waiting to be incarnated. The thought that once, someone–a stranger writing at a desk–had known what she knew, and had felt what she felt in her living heart, affirmed and fortified her. He is like me, she thought. He shares my sensations.

So, although Tess wonders “if the self she had become, and the self Oliver had become, and the self that Claire had been, would have been any different if they’d had a mother who lived,” and although it is true, as a relative says when Tess returns home for a visit, “All America ever brought this family was misfortune,” we know, as Tess knows, that she will not only endure the rest of her life, but, in her own quiet way, thrive.

Here, in this powerful, intensely felt book, is proof that the novel is far from dead, and can, in the right hands, affirm life in surprising and meaningful ways.

Roberta Silman Her three novels, Boundaries, The Dream Dredger, and Beginning the World Again have just been released by Open Road Distribution and can be purchased as ebooks at Amazon, Apple, B&N, and Google Play. She has also written short story collection, Blood Relations, and a children’s book, Somebody Else’s Child. A recipient of Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships, she has published reviews in The New York Times and The Boston Globe, and writes regularly for Arts Fuse. She can be reached at

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