Mary Costello’s first novel, Academy Street, published in 2014, follows the life of a woman named Tess from her childhood in rural Ireland to her old age in New York City at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Covering such a timespan implies a challenge for a novel as short as this one, but Costello’s careful development of her protagonist keeps the text focused from start to end. Rather than expounding upon social changes or great events from the latter half of the last century, the novel is centered on its protagonist’s psychology, as well as the development of her closest relationships across the years. There are several motifs in the text that serve to reinforce such concerns.
The novel begins when Tess is only seven years old, as she stands by a window while awaiting her mother’s funeral. The opening line, “It is and the window is open a little” (17), carries hints of James Joyce’s “Eveline,” from Dubliners, whose own first line is rather similar: “[Eveline] sat at the window watching the evening invade the avenue” (30) In fact, both texts depict women trapped by their societal and historical conditions and feature migration from Ireland as a possible—albeit flawed and questionable—escape. However, whereas Eveline appears as the subject of the sentence, Tess is absent from hers, already showing the authors’ diverging preoccupations. If Joyce shows interest in what the window offers to Eveline’s imagination of the world outside, Costello is much more concerned with using the window to peer inside Tess.
The motif of the window, in Academy Street, establishes the tension between the inside and outside, as seen in the discrepancy between Tess’s rich interiority and her struggle to convey it to other people. The novel itself, through its close focalization on Tess, becomes a window into key moments of this inner life that no other character has an access to, though this window “is open a little” to the reader. Late in the novel, the relationship between these two spheres of existence is explored further, when the narrator emphasizes that “it was this inner alter-life that rendered her outer life significant and in which she felt most exquisitely contained” (180). Costello’s precise writing of Tess’s interiority comes into contrast with the sparse, utilitarian use of dialogue, in a way that makes it clear Tess is far more alive within herself.
Moreover, one of Tess’s defining characteristics is how she is a quiet person. In a striking episode during the first part of the novel, Tess witnesses the death of a girl her age, which leaves her unable to speak aloud for several months. The novel portrays how “little by little she gets used to it. She does not miss talking at all. She does everything they ask—all her chores—and they all get used to her silence” (56). Although this spell of mutism breaks when she is still a girl, echoes of her silence carry across the rest of the novel. Much later in her life Tess muses about how “So many feelings between people were encoded in gesture and silence, because words fell short. A time might come when words would be extinct and all communication conducted in silence” (239). The form of the novel, though necessarily verbal, allows Costello to foreground her protagonist’s inner life through thought and expression in a way that few other forms would allow.
With limited exceptions, major historical events from the late twentieth century appear far off in the background, with little impact on Tess’s ordinary daily life. For example, United States President Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 is reduced to a passage with short, descriptive sentences: “The president had been shot. People let out little gasps. Tess stood before the TV” (145). Similarly, entire decades pass in the course of a single paragraph, whereas certain moments of Tess’s life become drawn out for their significance, such as the months following her arrival in New York where she tries to figure out an identity of her own outside of Ireland. Ultimately, the novel shows more interest in the development of this individual protagonist, one that has little concern for politics or the greater historical events at play.
The deaths of those close to Tess reflect the passage of time and are recorded with care throughout the novel. The very opening scenes depict the funeral of Tess’s mother, an event Tess still cannot fully comprehend at her young age but one that will shape the rest of her life, while the last section of the novel focuses heavily on Tess’s grief for her late family in her old age. The intense emotional pain that Tess feel appears to be in direct contrast with the perpetual turning of the rest of the world. In one memorable passage, the text juxtaposes these two perceptions: “All good had gone out of the world. And to think that the world still went on” (249). Of course, the first of these “worlds” is but Tess’s inner life subsumed by grief, while the second one appears to be the course of history and human activity, carrying on beyond Tess. Along the novel, Costello argues that these personal losses do far more to shape an ordinary life than the historical events themselves.
Home and displacement are other key themes in the novel, as Costello pays special attention to the different places where Tess resides throughout her life. As mentioned before, the first part of the novel follows the protagonist’s childhood in rural Ireland. Tess eventually learns the history of her home, Easterfield House, from a teacher that happened to be the previous owner. Although how the property was turned into a hospital during the Irish Potato Famine leaves an impression upon young Tess, it is the material conditions of the house, such as the leaky roof and the green pastures around it, that make her and the teacher bond over their shared origins. Moreover, the title of the novel itself comes from the very street where Tess lives shortly after migrating to New York. And though she tries, Tess feels like she will never be able to return to that place or time later in the novel. By the end of the novel, Easterfield too is torn down in her years away from Ireland, a reflection of the fact that the home she knew, and all its people, are now lost.
Ultimately, Costello’s first novel showcases an intricate portrait of a protagonist both in her complexity and specificity, as she follows a quiet life through the toils and troubles of both maturity and the late twentieth century. Tess serves as a firm anchor over the span of several decades, following the course of her life in a sort of prolonged Bildungsroman. Although many historical events are mentioned in the text, Costello is far more interested in how they affect individual people outside the political sphere. Overall, the novel seeks to open a window into the vivid inner life of a woman, in a way only a novel can.
Costello, Mary. Academy Street. Melbourne: Text Publishing Company, 2014.
Joyce, James. “Eveline”. Dubliners. Surrey: Alma Classics, 2012.