'Academy Street' follows a young woman – and her unquenched yearning – from Ireland to NY and back again

An exiled Irish girl turned émigré mother of New York lives a full life in just under 150 pages.

Academy Street By Mary Costello Farrar, Straus and Giroux 160 pp.

Academy Street is Mary Costello’s first novel, and though it is only 143 pages long, it takes in the life of a woman from childhood to old age. When we meet Tess Lohan it is 1944 and she is seven, sitting on the floor in the dining room of her home, once one of the “big houses” of Ireland. Although she is one of six children, she is there alone in her good clothes, listening to the sounds attendant upon the removal, from the floor above, of her mother in a coffin. A blackbird flies in one of the windows and tears a shred of wallpaper from the wall and flies out again, the scrap in its beak. This wallpaper, her mother had explained to her, depicts Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden – you don’t need a black belt in Bible studies to understand what the little girl feels she has lost with this death.

Religious elements show up throughout the book, creating a deeper dimension in the highly compressed narrative. The house is called Easterfield; a dark night of the soul occurs on Good Friday; and many other references to Christianity, especially Catholicism, appear, all in keeping with Tess’s view of the world. Her habits of mind are religious, and she has a sense that material life is grievously wanting. More precisely, she suffers from that Irish hunger, itself a delicious anguish, for epiphany and union with something beyond (fallen) flesh.

Tess grows up in a mourning household; her father, hard and morose, is unforgiving when she inadvertently lets his sheep escape. Sadness and guilt overwhelm her, and her conscience is appalled when a girl from a tinker clan – a family of  what are now called Travelling People – to whom she has been unkind, dies. She is struck dumb, unable to speak for a long period after that. Her adult life, then, is built on a foundation of desolation and loss, and she is shy, unassuming, and biddable.

Eventually Tess leaves home for Dublin and, following the path of her mother, trains and works as a nurse. Her beloved eldest sister emigrates from Ireland to America, leaving her again feeling bereft. In time Tess follows, flying to New York in 1962 (on the Feast of the Assumption) and finds herself released into a world of freedom, variety, and plenty unlike the stifling, castigating, impoverished land of her birth:

"Slowly, in the months that followed, Tess tuned to the frequency of the city, to the accents and the street grid and the subway, to the black faces on the sidewalk, the sirens at night, the five-and-ten-cent stores teeming with goods, and buildings that rose up daily from gaps in the streets. The new words too — pocketbook, meatloaf, lima beans, Jell-O. The taste of coffee, the clothes so lovely and cheap and slim-fitting. The abundance of everything."

To be sure, if America is filled with more promise than Ireland, it is also more dangerous in its big way: We witness the Cuban Missile Crisis through Tess’s 25-year-old eyes, followed the next year by the assassination of JFK, and nearly 40 years further on, the destruction of the World Trade Center – the day before which she herself is mugged.

Within a year or so of her arrival in New York, Tess falls in love with another Irish immigrant, but he is a lover more potential than actual, a man clearly drawn to her but also driven by some confounding force to stay away. Given Tess’s tropism toward impossible union, this is entirely fitting. She becomes pregnant from her one sexual encounter with this man, and the difference between America and Ireland is once again manifest. Back there she knows that she would have been shamed, shunned, and sequestered, her baby taken from her.

She continues to work, has the child, and names him Theo in honor of the feeling of transcendence she felt in looking at reproductions of Vincent van Gogh’s paintings and the artist’s letters to his kind and loving brother, Theo. Ever seeking ideal love and soul’s ecstasy, Tess makes her son the focus of her existence. Except for a friendship with her neighbor and the necessity of work and Theo’s school, she and the boy live isolated from the world – she “grafted herself onto him” – in a little apartment on the Academy Street of the title. It is a state of affairs she discovers cannot outlast the boy’s childhood.

The story moves surely through time, gliding over stretches of years to land at critical junctures in a life in which big events are rare and the most arresting ones take place in Tess’s mind. These occurrences are moments of transport, of love and of beauty, and dazzling revelations of the existence of possibility or the power of art or of reading, the last being a “kind of dream living” that “was sufficient, and perhaps, in its perfection, preferable to the feeble hopes embedded in reality.”

After Theo has grown up and distanced himself from her, life in America begins to feel empty. Tess returns as an old woman to her childhood home for a visit and the funeral of one of her brothers, another death and – need it be said? – maker of memories. She goes into the orchard where she had retreated as a child:

"She laid her head back and she was caught by something – the flicker of sky, intimation of eternity – and for one pure moment she was free and everything was revealed and everything resolved, the final question – the only question – resolved, and she was being delivered, given her first fleeting glimpse of landfall. A fall of memories loosened and images of happiness returned.... The lull of Eden, of ancient perfection.”

To tell you this is not to tell too much about this extraordinary novel. Its excellence lies not so much in where it ends up, though that is powerful enough and has resonance with James Joyce’s “The Dead,” that most perfect expression of Ireland’s obsession with death, goneness, and memory. But what is so unusually fine is the short novel’s persuasive momentum and the economy and precision with which its author has selected and portrayed the points which delineate and plumb the life of one woman. We cannot help feeling impatient with this person for her passivity, but we come to understand her soul and its yearning completely.

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