Author, Book review, Canongate, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Mary Costello, New York, Publisher, Setting

‘Academy Street’ by Mary Costello

Academy Street

Fiction – Kindle edition; Canongate Books; 193 pages; 2014. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Mary Costello’s Academy Street won the 2014 Eason Novel of the Year Award at the Irish Book Awards — and it’s my book of the year, too.

It’s a debut novel but has been written with all the assuredness and maturity of someone who’s been honing their craft for years. Unsurprisingly, the author is an accomplished short story writer — her work has been anthologised and published in New Irish Writing and The Stinging Fly and her first collection, The China Factory, was published to critical acclaim in 2012.

One woman’s life

The book charts the life of Tess Lohan from her girlhood in rural Ireland to her retirement in New York more than half a century later.

Told in the third person, it reveals a woman who’s a little afraid of grabbing life by the horns despite the fact she has the courage to emigrate to the US alone with little more than the clothes on her back. Here, in 1950s Manhattan, she has the inner strength and determination to create a new life for herself — she finds an apartment of her own, becomes a nurse and brings up a child — but she remains a quiet and shy person: she’s reticent, lacks self-confidence and never really knows “what to do or how to act”.

Occasionally she thought about retiring, moving house, taking a trip back to Ireland, but she did none of these things. There was, in her nature, a certain passivity, an acquiescence that was ill-suited to change or transformation, as if she feared ruffling fate or rousing to anger some capricious creature that lay sleeping at the bottom of her soul.

Throughout this short, powerful novel, we follow Tess’s ups and downs — her occasional periods of happiness, her heartbreaking disappointments, her successes, her failures — and throughout it all her forbearance and stoicism shines through.

But aside from a friendship she develops with a female neighbour, she always feels at a distance from others and is unable to create the kinds of connections she so desperately craves:

All evening long she smiled and mingled, but she felt remote. It seemed at times that she was marooned on an island, a moat of water, wide and black, separating her from all human love.

Like many lonely people she finds solace in books, and some of the most touching scenes describe her very strong feelings towards novels and literature.

Tess found a new life in books. […] The mere sighting of a book on her hall table or night stand as she walked by, the author’s name or title on the spine, the remembrance of character — his trials, his adversity — took her out of ordinary time and induced in her an intensity of feeling, a sense of union with that writer. […]The things she hankered after — encounters with beauty, love, sometimes the numinous — she found in books. […] She became herself, her most true self, in those hours among books.

A distinctive voice

Because Academy Street condenses one woman’s life into just 193 pages, some aspects feel a little rushed or skipped over, but that’s a minor quibble.

I fell in love with this book from the first page. It’s written in that lovely lyrical style reminiscent of the best Irish fiction — think a cross between Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn and Sebastian Barry’s On Canaan’s Side — but has a distinctive voice all of its own.

It so encapsulates the human condition — our desperate desire to fit in, to make meaningful connections with others, to feel as if we are worth something to someone — it’s easy to identify with Tess’s situation. Adrift from her own family — and her own country — her sense of isolation resonates off the page. But while it’s quite a sad story, it’s more bittersweet than depressing and is never sentimental or cloying. It’s poignant and has an undercurrent of melancholia, but is punctuated with quiet moments of joy.

Tess Lohan’s life might be quiet and understated but the impact on the reader is nothing less than devastating.

Alison Moore, Author, Book review, Fiction, Germany, literary fiction, Publisher, Salt Publishing, Setting

‘The Lighthouse’ by Alison Moore


Fiction – Kindle edition; Salt Publishing; 192 pages; 2012.

Before I’d finished the first chapter of Alison Moore’s astonishingly good debut novel, The Lighthouse, I knew I was going to love it. Why? Because it had that lovely melancholic feel that characterises Per Petterson’s work. And perhaps because the opening chapter was set on a ferry — a common theme in Petterson’s novels — I felt immediately at home with the subject matter and the prose style.

A week-long holiday

The book has been billed as a “walking novel” but it is less about walking than about a middle-aged man — the impossibly named Futh — coming to terms with his past while on a week-long holiday in Germany. As he trods a circular route along the Rhine, he has plenty of time to think about his childhood, his early adulthood and his marriage.

The holiday is supposed to be restorative — he is freshly divorced and when he returns to England he will move into a new flat, where “all those self-assembly boxes will be there, with all his things inside waiting to be unpacked”. But things get off to a bad start on his first night at (the appropriately named) Helhaus hotel, in which he is badly treated by the landlord for what he thinks is no apparent reason.

However, Futh is not what we would call the most perceptive of characters, and much of what happens to him, not just on this holiday but throughout his life, seems to occur because he has misread people or situations. Indeed, most of this novel hinges on characters misunderstanding one another, either because they are too self-absorbed or because they lack the necessary social skills or emotional intelligence. On more that one occasion I was reminded of another of my favourite authors, Magnus Mills.

Second storyline

The Lighthouse contains a secondary narrative thread, told in alternate chapters, involving Ester, the landlady at the Helhaus hotel. Middle-aged but with a rampant sexual appetite, she resorts to seducing guests and having furtive sex with them, unaware that her usually inattentive husband knows exactly what she is doing.

Like Futh, Ester spends much of the novel thinking about her past and coming to terms with losing her looks — and her husband’s love. Similarly, she is also unable to appreciate how others might view her behaviour, which leads to some ingenious set-ups that are laugh out loud funny.  (As an example, that first night in the hotel is, quite frankly, hilarious.)

But on the whole this is a rather sad novel, more so when you realise that Futh is emotionally stunted, no doubt caused by his mother abandoning him as a small boy. Raised by his bullish father, a sexually promiscuous man, Futh lacks confidence, becomes the target of school bullies and finds it difficult to fit in, even as a grown man.

Symbolic language

Much has been said about the heavy-handed use of metaphors in this book — the lighthouse, in particular, is a recurring (phallic) symbol — but I quite enjoyed spotting these. And I also enjoyed some of Moore’s beautiful similes:

The man has his hands flat on the bar, his fingers splayed, his manicured nails like the display of eyes on a peacock’s tail.


‘You are losing your sparkles,’ she said, reaching out and savagely refixing Ester’s diamante hair pins, the wire scraping along her scalp like rocks against the hull of a boat as it ran aground.

But most of all I loved that from such a tiny package — the book is less than 200 pages and can be comfortably read in a handful of sittings — Moore has crafted a delightful, tightly crafted and incredibly suspenseful story.

The Lighthouse has been shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize. Tomorrow night (Tuesday, October 16), we will find out if it has taken the £50,000 award.