I’ve written before about my overwhelming admiration for Virginia Woolf’s novel “The Waves.” One thing which makes this novel so extraordinary is the grace with which Woolf captures the full lifespan of her characters and compresses the warm core of them into tightly-knit, terse chapters. Mary Costello does something similar in her short, poignant novel “Academy Street” which follows the life of an Irish girl named Tess from an early age being raised at a farm till her much later years living in New York City. Each stage is presented with the unique quirks which accompany any individual’s life – yet the sentiment found there acquires a universal meaning and becomes familiar. During the journey the reader is held so close to Tess’ point of view it’s as if you are living it fully alongside her witnessing her most crucial moments while being privy to her innermost thoughts. Carried along by Costello’s delicately handled compressed narrative, I was moved by this story particularly for the way it meaningfully represents the plight of a person who feels in her innermost being so quintessentially alone.
The narrative is so deeply couched in Tess’ mind it’s as if anything else in the external world is only seen through the window of a fast moving train. Now and then it alights upon some solid physical objects and the connection Tess makes then is so deeply profound it is almost spiritual. As Tess grows into adolescence it’s observes “Lately the thought that all the things around her, the things that matter, and move her – the trees and fields and animals – have their own lives, their own thoughts, has planted itself in her. If a thing has a life, she thinks, then it has a memory.” It’s an extraordinary way to present the concept of projecting feeling outward into the world so that objects are granted consciousness and memory.
Tess is highly sensitised to her environment but she also feels as disconnected and essentially unknown to the objects around her as she is to the people in her life. Later it’s acknowledged that “She had always felt separate from people, and lately she had the sense that when she was out of view she disappeared entirely from the minds of others. At such moments she siphoned off images from the past and used them to imagine herself back into existence.” The labour of consciously trying to gather a sense of self through the imagined perceptions of others is something we all try to do in the hope that we are seen and remembered. But Tess is aware that individuals exist fundamentally as singular beings – no matter the amount of friends or family one might have.
The smallest details can take on a much larger meaning. Imagery as starkly simple and powerful like any described set piece in a J.M. Synge play fills this novel such as a moment when Tess sees “her mother’s apron is hanging on a nail at the end of the dresser.” The fact of its existence is wrapped with all the memories of the past as well as what could have been and what will not be in the future. It is in perceiving these objects that we are taken out of our minds. At one point it’s observed that “She looked around the ward – at the chair by the wall, the sink in the corner, the man in the bed, people passing in the corridor. It is this, all of these things, she thought, that confer reality.” Particularly in moments of high emotional tension we become aware of the physical world around us. These things make us recall that we are still only biological creatures that exist in a particular environment which is always shifting and changing.
Time takes on a forceful meaning in the novel as great portions of Tess’ life are skipped over, but the narrative holds true to her emotional centre. A sense of loss can accompany every second as it’s observed that “She listens to the clock ticking. Everything is changing.” Especially in moments when we become aware that we have forever lost something or someone we love, time cruelly continues forward and creates change. Just as some passages in the novel are highly attuned to particular moments, in other sections there is a rapid expansion of time to expand voluminously out into a grand overview. It’s as if history surges up out of objects and into the mind before subsiding back into a distantly felt darkness. This rapid compression and decompression of time has a dizzying effect.
So moving to me and to any lover of literature, is the profound connection Tess feels to reading and books later in life. What great reader can’t connect with a line like: “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 the 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.” It’s as if in these passages Mary Costello beautifully articulates the great connection we can have with books as a better way of being in touch with ourselves: “She became herself, her most true self, in those hours among books.” Literature as a great endeavour of the humanities seeks to affix some permanence to the ephemeral reality which causes Tess such existential anguish. But, she is careful to point out, that it’s not for edification that one should turn to literature: “It was not that she found in novels answers or consolations but a degree of fellow-feeling that she had not encountered elsewhere, one which left her feeling less alone. Or more strongly alone, as if something of herself – her solitary self – was at hand, waiting to be incarnated.” This summarizes so perfectly my feeling for the divine purpose of reading and the profound way it can encourage a communion with the self. The “lonesome” aspect of my blog’s title does not necessarily connotate being lonely, but being both alone and in touch with humanity.
“Academy Street” is a careful, deeply thoughtful and powerful novel. It recalls most immediately Toibin’s novel “Brooklyn” for the way it also represents a sense of split national identity. Yet, the author has a particular power of her own for writing about consciousness. It’s bewitching the way Costello represents how in moment to moment existence there is a sloshing back and forth between the deeply-felt internal with the external world. It made me sink deeply into Tess’ experience and read with all my attention – which is what you always ideally want with a good book.