Author Features / Features

Mary Costello: Writing the Essential Self

by Amy Day Wilkinson

I knew to expect sadness in the Irish writer, Mary Costello’s, debut novel, Academy Street. Of her debut collection of short stories, The China Factory, published in 2012, Anne Enright wrote in a review for The Guardian of the “immaculate suburban sadness in many of these tales.” In August 2012, in a feature that appeared on The Millions and then later here at Bloom, Sonya Chung wrote, “there is much sadness, of the starkly honest and lonely variety, in Costello’s stories. She gets it so right—achingly right—how love and loss are indistinguishable.” In fact, Chung drew the title of her piece from the Enright sentence, calling her essay “Mary Costello’s Immaculate Sadness.” To be immaculate is to be clean and perfect. And, indeed, Costello’s sadness has both qualities.

When the time comes in her fiction for devastating blows to be dealt to characters—in particular the deaths of loved ones—Costello is both economical and precise with her language: clean. In Academy Street, the event that ushers in the greatest sadness is relayed in four short paragraphs beginning with this: “The worst thing had finally happened, the calamity she had always been waiting for.”

In order to engender a feeling of genuine sadness in one’s reader, a writer has to make us believe in and care about the world that’s being shattered. This is the hard part, and yet it is when this happens that the conjuring of sadness in fiction is perfect. For most of Academy Street, Costello creates a character and her life in exquisite detail, with seemingly effortless prose. It’s psychological realism that brings to mind the work of Alice Munro. In other words, it works. When Tess’s world is shattered, ours is too.

Academy Street was published in 2014 by Canongate Books in the UK, and in 2015 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux here in the US. Costello’s story collection, The China Factory, was published in 2012 by The Stinging Fly Press in Ireland, an imprint dedicated to publishing new Irish literary fiction and promoting the short story.

This recent flurry of publications comes at the end of nearly two decades of not publishing. Costello started writing stories in her early 20s, but at the time, she was married and working full time as a teacher. When I asked Costello about those decades, she said, “writing slipped into the margins of my life.” And yet the need to write didn’t go away: “Often I tried to shed it but it wouldn’t leave me entirely—it kept gnawing—and every now and then a story would push up and I’d have to write it.”

In Academy Street, plenty happens. There are deaths, marriages, births, relocations, estrangements, reunions, crimes. Still, one doesn’t get the feeling that plot drove the writing (nevertheless, I will insert here a Spoiler Alert—the main events of the novel’s plot will be revealed here). Rather, the events spring naturally from the life of the central character, Tess Lohan. Academy Street spans seven decades, opening in the mid-1940s and closing in the early 2000s. For the first two decades of Tess’s life, she lives in western Ireland; for the five subsequent decades, she lives in New York City. Following a character for seven decades, knowing a character for 60 years of life, is a tremendous act of imagination. It’s astonishing how Costello gets Tess right at every age.

Here, for example, is Costello writing from seven-year-old Tess’s perspective as it sinks in that her mother is dead:

Tess’s heart nearly stops. She understands what that means; her mother is lying in her coffin in her new blue dress. The one she got in Briggs’s that day that Tess got her dress, the one she is wearing now. Carefully, she leaves the cake plate on the sideboard and walks out of the dining room on shaky legs. She climbs the stairs. The sun is flooding in through the stained-glass window, like yesterday. She hurries past, to the upstairs landing and down along the corridor to her parents’ room.

Once inside, Tess opens the wardrobe:

She pushes at the coats and the dresses but there are too many and she is too small and they fall back in her way again. She pulls and drags on the hems of the dresses and skirts, bringing them towards the light. She is almost crying. There is no blue dress. Her mother is wearing it in the coffin. Then she remembers that her mother is no longer in the chapel. She is down in the ground now. Or up in heaven.

And here is Costello writing from 24-year-old Tess’s perspective. It’s 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis has just ended, the world has narrowly avoided nuclear war, and Tess is living and working as a nurse in New York City. She writes a joyful letter to her father:

We were all brought together in fear and mutual need. . . and now its passing has brought something else—hope, love—down on the streets.

Tess feels the exuberance of being young and independent in New York:

A week later she returned to the Bronx and bought five dresses in a dress store, one lovelier than the other, because she could. She took the subway back down to 181st Street and walked out into the autumn sun and floated along the sidewalk, catching herself for a moment in that concentrated life.

Shortly after this time of youthful exuberance, Tess becomes pregnant. The pregnancy is the result of a one-night stand with the only man Tess ever loves, a man she won’t hear from again after their night of passion. And yet Tess keeps and raises the baby, a boy she names Theo. Her story becomes one of a single mother raising a child in New York City in the 1960s and 1970s—a story of struggle, certainly, but also one of joy. Here is Costello writing from the perspective of Tess as a new mother:

The child’s existence turned a plain world to riches. Her life raised up like this, the child giving point and purpose to each day, the care of him transforming her, widening and deepening her.

Something else, too, accrued. Everywhere her heart softened towards mankind. The minor irritations—the slow strollers on the pavement at rush hour, a broken elevator, a long line in a café—were shed. A tenderness entered her actions, a softness in her tone of voice. She found unbearable a raised voice, a blaring horn, a rough hand on a patient. She saw vulnerability everywhere—old women in shopping aisles, the bums and drunks and hoboes on the subway, the blind, the lame, the stray dogs—the voiceless and defenseless on every corner. One day she stopped before a broken branch on the pavement, and when she looked up, the bare wound on the bough grieved her.

And then, of course, time passes; children grow up. Before they leave their parents’ homes for good they figure out ways to emotionally distance themselves. Here’s Tess as the mother of a teenager:

A long contemptuous silence ensued, times when he simmered, seethed, bristled at just the sight of her in the kitchen. It would have been easier if he’d kicked down doors. She left money and notes on the table, delayed her return from work in the evenings. On weekends he stayed out late, drinking. Her heart was breaking.

Later still, Theo is 28, a man in the world, on the brink of marrying “a tall Jewish girl named Jennifer, a lawyer, who sometimes accompanied him now on his visits to Tess.” Costello writes from the perspective of a middle-aged Tess, a mother who feels nostalgic for the days when Theo was young and hers alone:

Images from the past returned to her: entering Willa’s apartment in the evenings, the child running into her arms, making her heart leap in her breast. To give joy like that. To see him sitting in his bath, eyes closed, laughing, as she rinsed his hair and the warm water trickled down his face. Or lying on the floor drawing men on the moon, animals marching in pairs onto Noah’s Ark, asking her to spell a word, and she, she, in the wash of him, feeling the truth of him deep in her soul.

Finally, the great tragedy of the book: Theo dies suddenly. Tess, a woman in her sixties, tallies her son’s life: “thirty-seven years, two months, and twenty-one days.” Once again, Costello rises to the occasion. Here she is writing 64-year-old Tess, a grieving mother:

Days passed, then weeks. The grief was so deep her eyes could not weep. All good had gone out of the world. And to think that the world still went on. She saw again children playing, people eating and drinking and laughing, the purchase of life. Birds, books, the notes of a cello, the glossy green heads of ducks in a pond, all indifferent. She put the TV on mute, watched a man on a dust track in India, with trees, water, the setting sun—a huge orange orb lowering itself into the earth. She had never understood that—why the sun and the moon looked so large and near in the East. Intolerably beautiful. She had no armor left. She had no son left. Was there something she had missed? She stared at his photograph. Was there something she could have done to avert it? But the dead don’t talk back. The dead don’t talk. The dead.

A little later, months into the grieving that will last the rest of Tess’s life, we get this:

She had always been waiting for something or someone to guide her, and age had not altered that essential self.

Perhaps the way one writes effectively, movingly, about 60 years of a character’s life is by getting to the heart of that character’s essential self.

It’s interesting to consider whether Academy Street, written by an Irish author, opening and closing in the same county in western Ireland, is an Irish story. In response to a question I asked about being an Irish writer and what that means, Costello said, “I don’t ever think of myself as an Irish writer, but simply a writer. But insofar as I was born and live in Ireland, I’m an Irish writer. This is where I landed on earth, so as sure as my skin is Irish, my voice is Irish.” At a fundamental level, where one comes from influences the language one uses; Costello’s “voice is Irish.” Beyond that, Ireland and its landscapes also affect Costello’s writing. In her words: “The physical place, the rural and urban landscapes of this country, are the ones that rise easily in my mind’s eye when I am writing.”

And yet two-thirds of Academy Street, two-thirds of Tess’s life, takes place in New York. The title of the book is the name of the street in the Inwood section of Manhattan where Tess and Theo live for the entirety of their life together. One doesn’t necessarily choose where one’s world is centered. For me, the center of the book is not Ireland but New York. The main story ends there, with the trip home to Ireland serving as a postscript of sorts, a way to come full circle.

There’s another reason I read Academy Street as a New York story: the novel, it turns out, is also a 9/11 story. Tess’s son Theo dies in the attack on the World Trade Center.

As I was reading, I didn’t see this coming. Initially, I toyed with including another “spoiler alert” at the opening of this section, but then I decided against it. Knowing that 9/11 touches Tess’s life in the biggest way possible doesn’t lessen the impact of this narrative choice. And, according to Costello, 9/11 was there all along. In her words: “I knew from the start that the events of 9/11 would play an important role in Tess’s life and were essential to her story.”

In retrospect, there are signs. Tess had a sense of foreboding. When Theo was two and a half, Tess looked at him and thought, “He was almost too beautiful. With this thought came a vague feeling of premonition, a presentiment.” And there’s a narrative patterning. Beneath the surface of the story there is always the thrumming of world events. Tess is aware of and captivated by the Cuban Missile Crisis, the JFK assassination, the Apollo 11 moon landing. For the most part one reads Academy Street and thinks, This is a beautifully rendered story of a quiet life. Of course world events pass by and register. But then, occasionally, even with the quietest of lives, world events collide.

This is what happens to Tess. Perhaps that’s why this debut novel by an Irish writer strikes me as such a New York story. Tess didn’t have much—a one-night stand she thinks of four decades later; a nursing career; a lifelong female friendship; a son—and yet these things were hard earned and cherished. That a woman with this little gets decimated by 9/11 both snuck up on me and broke my heart. “The worst thing had finally happened, the calamity she had always been waiting for.” I thought of all the quiet lives broken by 9/11. That the book works this way doesn’t seem forced. Costello knows how to do sadness; in Academy Street she does sadness in a bigger way than ever.

In Ireland, where she lives, and in the UK, Mary Costello is gaining recognition. The China Factory was nominated for the Guardian First Book Award, and Academy Street won Eason Novel of the Year in the 2014 Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Awards, winning out over finalists Colm Tóibín, Joseph O’Connor, David Mitchell, John Kelly, and John Boyne.

In the May 2015 New York Times review, Belinda McKeon wrote, “Costello’s concern, in this slim novel traversing seven decades, is to bear witness to the intensity of experience that Tess knows from the inside out; the imaginings, the desires, the complexities that, in this quiet, passive woman, others cannot see.” She praised the moments in the novel “when Costello follows her instinct for Tess’s deepest self to those feelings and impulses that are murkier, less justified by outward plot points, more rooted in her most fundamental losses—her visceral infatuations, for instance, her repressed and neglected sexuality or her long-festered homesickness.” It’s at these moments, McKeon claimed, “that the writing becomes charged with all the strangeness and vitality of her character.”

As Costello’s work becomes more known and readily available here in the U.S., I’m hoping the waves travel like the wake of a small motorboat, lapping up on distant shores.

Bloom Post End

Amy Day Wilkinson’s fiction has recently appeared in Jabberwock Review and Elm Leaves Journal.  She teaches writing at NYU and lives in Brooklyn with her family.

Homepage image courtesy Geograph

Amy Day Wilkinson’s previous feature: Jo Ann Beard: All There Is To Do Is Write

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s