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Dec 24

Book Review: Academy Street by Mary Costello

What’s It About?

Spanning 6 decades, beginning with Ireland in the 1940s and ending with the tragedy of the Twin Towers, Mary Costello’s short novel details the life and times of Tess Lohan.  The back cover blurb says, that during her fourty years living “with quiet intensity on Academy Street in upper Manhattan, Tess encounters ferocious love and calamitous loss.”

Should I read it?

No.  No.  No.

Even though it’s received rave reviews from critics and literary authors like J.M. Coetzee and Ron Rash, Mary Costello’s first novel is a dull and earnest slog.  Tess is a miserable martyr of a character who has sexual relations once… gets pregnant… never sees the father again… brings up the child alone (with some help from the next door neighbour)… and never again finds intimacy or, for that matter, has sex.  To cap it all off her 37-year-old son, Theo, dies in the Twin Towers on September 11.

I know there are people who gobble up this sort of misery-porn.  I just found it tedious.

Representative Paragraph

The one and only moment of sexual intimacy.

And then, woozy, half dreaming, she gasped at the first hot stab and cried out in pain.  She pushed at his chest, tried to pull herself from under him.  Frightened, he looked in her eyes, and rolled off.  He stroked her cheek tenderly.  Shh, I’m sorry.  A look of sorrow came upon him.  She began to crumble.  A tear rolled from the corner of her eye.  He kissed her eyelids, whispered something she did not hear.

They lay in each other’s arms  She did not want to lose him.  She pressed herself to him, felt herself yield again.  He searched her face, kissed her.  He began to move, slowly, gentle, his hands caressing her until she felt the swell and ache of her body, the longing to fuse, to be subsumed.  She turned her head to the side, repositioned herself under his weight.  He seemed to forget himself then, and her.  She did not care.  She closed her eyes against the pain, both shocking and stirring.  She was offering herself to him, and to something larger.  She felt herself topple and a point of light, of bright sensation, opened and spread, spacious within her, and pushed her perilously close to a precipice.  She had the feeling that he might after all save her, save them both, but then he gasped and shuddered and collapsed on top of her.

Commentary

I really didn’t like this book.

First there’s the prose.  With six decades to cover in 170 or so pages, the writing is dense, compressed, mostly telling and never much showing.  The novel is also entirely devoid of humour.  Everything is grim and faded and earnest, the sort of literary writing that strives for profundity but is mostly stodgy and dull.

On top of that Tess is a passive character.  Other than choosing to travel to America, life seems to just happen to her.  I think we’re meant to admire Tess’ inner strength or “quiet intensity” as she deals with the struggles of being a single mother in America during the 60s.  But she’s so inert that I found it impossible to engage with her as a person, especially given the amount of tragedy she faces throughout her life.

But my complaint goes beyond Tess’ utter lack of aspiration or ambition.  I quoted above her first and only sexual encounter with her one true love, David.  Much later she wonders whether there would ever “come another night, another time, another man, to match that brief all-consuming union?”  The answer (spoiler alert) is no.  She not only loses her virginity to David but she’s never again intimate with another man.  Rather this one moment of desire, described by Tess  as going “awry”, results in the birth of her son Theo.

I understand that not every woman had the opportunity to empower themselves, to enjoy the burgeoning fruits of feminism and sexual freedom in the 1960s.  But in neutering Tess, and in falling back on that awful cliché of the unmarried woman becoming pregnant the first time she makes love, I can’t help but feel that Costello is punishing her main character.  It’s made worse when Theo, once he hits teenage years, distances himself from Tess, a state of affairs that remains constant throughout adulthood.  The narrative doesn’t really provide a reason for this.  There’s no evidence that, aside from being a bit cold, Tess is a bad mother.  But Theo and by extension Costello, punishes Tess anyway.  And to add salt to the wound, Theo is in the Twin Towers on September 11.  It feels like a reworking of The Fallen Woman trope, but one that’s needlessly cruel and tasteless.

Even the one bright moment in Tess’ life, her relationship with her neighbour Willa, is framed in this context.  They become very close and there is a moment where they touch and… “[Tess] had a sudden longing to reach out, move aside the fabric, touch a breast, lay her head there, her mouth, ease her terrible ache for human touch, human love.”  I thought Costello was going to save the situation and allow Tess to enjoy and experience a genuine moment of love.  But no.  Prometheus must stay chained to his rock.

I didn’t like this book not just because it’s so dull and earnest but because Costello feels the need to constantly flagellate her character, to provide her with a life of tragedy and sadness and loneliness, to remove any chance she might have of feeling love and intimacy.  Some will find this inspiring, a great example of the human condition.  But really it’s just misery-porn masquerading as something profound and significant.

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