Academy Street – Mary Costello

Academy Street Mary Costello

Academy Street – Mary Costello
Canongate Books, 2014
image from

I feel I was quite late to the party with this book as I’ve seen it reviewed on many blogs with all of them saying positive things. The synopsis sounded something I would like: Academy Street follows Tess from a young girl growing up in rural Ireland in the 1940s to an old woman living in New York in the 2000s.

For some reason, I’d assumed that a book charting the life of someone from youth to old age would be a long one. Yet the novel comes in at only 179 pages; its brevity doesn’t compromise how much you feel you know Tess, and I think it’s more powerful than if it had been longer.

Academy Street is a quiet book, one that tells the story of a woman’s quiet life. Tess is quite an introverted character, often retreating into herself and isolating herself from others. Yet it’s an immensely powerful novel. Like with John Williams’ Stoner (which I love) it concentrates on the life of an individual that is quiet, the kind of person books may not be written about, but is a powerful exploration of that person. Tess’ story has stayed with me – I finished this book in March and I’m writing the review at the end of May (I’m quite behind on my reviews…!) but still find myself thinking about her.

I love Costello’s use of language throughout Academy Street: it’s quite a visual book in that her writing conjures vivid images with sparse and controlled prose. There’s a particular image at the beginning of the book which sees a blackbird fly into Tess’ room on the day of her mother’s funeral which has stayed with me; another is when Tess is leaving her family home on her way to America that she notices, for the first time, a tree has barbed wire around it, submerged in the trunk of the tree.

The novel can also be quite intense at times, honing in on Tess’ emotions. Young Tess’ realisation that her mother is gone and won’t be coming back is very powerful. I want to share a passage from later in the book when Tess is much older:

‘She started to see possibilities everywhere, and it was this feeling of possibility – even if she did not always avail herself of it – this vibrancy and passion that were essential to life. Perhaps this was the source of her anxiety, she thought, the mark of all anxiety: the acute awareness of the endless possibilities that can simultaneously imperil and enhance us, and all that might be lost or gained. And the terrible tension that exists when everything hangs on a moment, that moment when one may take a leap of faith, or not. It is choice then, she thought, freedom of choice, that is the cause of all anxiety’. (p. 111-112)

This passage really struck a chord with me: it’s as if Costello has articulated feelings I’m not sure how to explain, and perhaps a conclusion I’d come to, but hadn’t quite understood yet.

I didn’t make any notes when I read Academy Street (apart from the quote above) which doesn’t help me writing this review, but does go some way to show how engrossed I was in this novel. It’s a poignant and moving story, a quietly powerful book that has left a lasting impression on me and one which I continue to think about.

This book has been reviewed by many bloggers, but it was the reviews by Susan at A Life in Books and Jacqui at JacquiWine’s Journal that led me to add it to the to-read list, so thank you both!

Have you read Academy Street? What did you think?


12 thoughts on “Academy Street – Mary Costello

    • It is, isn’t it? I just had to write it down when I read it. I’d highly recommend the book – would love to know what you think of it if you get a chance to read it 🙂

  1. Thanks so much for the link. I’m delighted that you enjoyed Academy Street. It’s a mystery to me as to why it wasn’t longlisted for the Baileys – it’s a very fine book.

  2. Sounds wonderful, I love the quote you used. The premise reminded me a bit of The Stone Diaries, which I thought was excellent – have you read it? If you liked this I think you’d enjoy it.

    • It is a lovely quote, isn’t it? I haven’t read it – I just searched for the book and it does sound interesting – I’ve added it to my to-read list. Thank you for the recommendation!

  3. I’m so glad you enjoyed this one, Gemma (and thanks for the link – that’s very kind of you). I agree with everything you’ve said about the novel. Tess’ story really does linger in the mind – a story of a life lived on the fringes, but no less important for that.

  4. Also read it & absolutely loved it… beautifully written, almost mesmerizing in places yet very understated. Costello gets the reader to really experience Tess’s life & emotions. Great review!

Leave a Reply

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