It’s 1962, and Tess is 25. She leaves Ireland for New York, ready to begin her life again. Ireland has an unhappy hold on her. Her mother died when she was a child, the memories haunting her as she grows up in the house where ‘Memories and traces of her mother must linger all over the house – in rooms and halls and landings. The dent of her feet on a rug. On a cup, the mark of her hand.’ An emotionally absent father, a struggle for money, boarding school homesickness have all given her hope that somewhere, elsewhere, her life will grow in the way it should.
In a flat on Academy Street, from which Mary Costello gets her title, she delights in the city, ‘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 street. The new words too – pocket-book, meatloaf, lima beans, Jell-O. The taste of coffee, the clothes so lovely and cheap and slim-fitting. The abundance of everything.’
But as magical as the city is, life is of course not easy, and this is a story of limited action but intense emotion. The everyday experiences as lived by a woman on the margins. Her life is no less than anyone else’s, just ordinary, limited by her circumstance and confidence. Simple losses and daily struggles are what constitute the bulk of the book in this quiet existence of Tess’s.
Her life is small, partly because she is scared to live it. ‘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.’
But living passively does not stop things happening, or hurting. An early romance results in pregnancy. When her son Theo turns on her over his unknown father, the pain is searing. She longs for their family to be complete. To belong. She could never go back to Ireland, which ‘seemed to her now to be a place without dreams, or where dreaming was prohibited.’ But New York is not the land of dreams.
A twist in the tale is obviously never meant to be expected, but this was certainly the case in Academy Street. Convincingly portraying how an ordinary existence can be catapulted into seeming oblivion, Costello’s writing is succinct and empathetic. Words save Tess too. Hours in the library, or curled up reading, bring her comfort. Tess ‘became herself, her most true self, in those hours among books. I am made for this, she thought.’
It’s a slow struggle, but finally, perhaps Tess becomes who she is meant to be. Like we all do eventually.
Published by Canongate.