The publishing world’s still living in an era when their summer offerings are anachonistically known as ‘beach reading’, referring back, quaintly, to a time when people took the summer off for vacations (many Boards of Trustees of arts organizations also don’t meet in the summer, for the same reason: it was once assumed that ‘everyone’ was away for the summer in some type of ‘cottage’ in Michigan or The Cape, the coast of Maine or the north or south shores of Long Island ). As such, a lot of new releases in the late spring and summer are novels allegedly about the lives of the rich in these summer abodes.
If you skip most of those, part of the fun of summer reading is finding hidden novels, debut books or a first novel following a book of short stories, for example. In any case, you’ll still find some excellent fiction if you look a little differently than you might in the other three seasons.
I was , thus, completely surprised by Academy Street, a novel by Irish writer Mary Costello, because it manages to be flawless in its ideas, plot, characterizations, writing style, lyricism and sheer beauty. Not long at under l50 pages, Costello’s novel is a variation on the Irish family saga, of which there are many, but this book proves that though an idea may not be new, the interpretation of it is what matters (an idea probably first proposed in The Book of Deuteronomy in The Old Testament, where we are told that (and I paraphrase) “all is vanity……there is nothing new under the sun”…….it’s the latter phrase that jolted me some years back, as if there’s nothing new seven thousand years ago, then it’s all in the interpretation……..think of all those musicians who’ve interpreted Bach, for example, and you’ll see the point in action.)
Six children are born into this Irish family, which lives in a homestead that’s hundreds of years old, and Costello’s poetic appreciation of the land and this house are rendered in perfect, flawless prose, though her writing’s closer to prose poetry, often. When the mother of the family dies—and the rituals surrounding a death in the family are magnificently rendered—we have a widowed father who’s going to try to raise these children. The novel’s seen through the eyes of one daughter, who’s about nine when her mother dies. Three of the six children will stay in Ireland, in the course of this book , and three will go to America, including the narrator. Mirroring a very new and fascinating trend in contemporary literature, what I call the emigrant novel, the three who go to America all do relatively badly, and our narrator, who does become a nurse, so she’s self-supporting, also gets pregnant after one one night stand (and that will be the extent of her entire sexual development for life). How she raises this “love child” (her words) boy is the core of the novel, but not all of it. Costello has a razor sharp eye for the idea of loss, and for disappointment: she seems a very worthy heir to English novelist Anita Brookner in her plot, her ability to hone in on the meager life of one (mostly unnoticed) Irish immigrant woman in New York, which is fertile Brookner territory (think of Brookner’s Look at Me as an example of the similarities between these two brilliant woman writers/stylists). The Irish sense of being cursed combines with the American sense of extreme isolationism, and Costello allows us into the very lonely emotional feeling states of this one immigrant woman, who will almost seem cursed as the novel evolves. Costello sees the down sides of the immigrant experience, much as , say, Kiran Desai does in her splendid first novel The Inheritance of Loss.
Late in the novel, the narrator decides to return to Ireland for the funeral of one of her brothers; it’s been about forty years since she left, and when she returns to the land that was once her family’s, and sees that the old homestead had been torn down (it had been falling apart), and sees where the grass still shows the edges of where the house and outbuildings had once been, she says “I heard the land weeping”, one of the most beautifully poetic lines I’ve read in fiction in a long, long time. And one of her sisters comments after the funeral that “All America ever brought this family was misfortune”. As affluent American readers, we’re not prepared for the immigrants who come here and hate it., and this response to America is showing up increasingly in contemporary fiction, and it’s a kind of warning to the rest of us that much of the world no longer sees America as the great hope that our grandparents or great grandparents did when they came here in the l800s.
Academy Street (the name of a street in Greater New York, probably in Queens, where the narrator lives) is also a strong meditation on what happens when a mother dies young in a family where the father is ill prepared to raise children and keep , say, a farm going. We might conclude that the three children who remainded in Ireland had more predictably safe lives than the three who go to America do, but an underlying feminism makes us question the roles of those who remain, as so much is predicated upon women staying home , raising children and helping with farmwork.
This multi-layered, relatively short by very pithy novel , is an easy one to miss or skip, but since the writing in it’s as perfect as any I’ve read in years, and since the novel’s flawlessly structured, and the characters fascinating, and the land of Ireland itself an underlying character, I recommend Academy Street by the amazingly gifted Mary Costello without a single reservation, and hope those readers who look for ‘the little novels’, as I do, will read it and find it as gorgeous as I do.