Bookshelf Challenge – No 3 – Academy Street – Mary Costello

For the last few years, one of my besties has been doing the Unread Shelf challenge. The idea is (in part – it’s a bigger challenge than it looks) to use prompts to help a reader work through the Unread Titles on their shelves.

Inspired by her, I am in the midst of attempting to gain control over my unruly bookshelves, so have tallied up my UnRead Books.

Just fictional books – not including poetry, factual or eddyumacational books – ONLY fiction, you get me?

There’s 128 books.

That’s…that’s a bit much really.

So here’s where I tackle them, book by book – to finally figure out which are staying, which are going to be donated and which are going to be discarded unfinished. Oh yes, I’m in that sort of a ruthless mode!

My choice for book number 3 is Academy Street by Mary Costello – a share from a few years ago, from my mum.

Tess Lohan appears to be a quiet child. But within lies a heart of fire. A fire that will propel her from her native Ireland into the hurly-burly of 1960s New York. In this city she will face the twists of a life graced with great beauty, but forever floating close to hazard. Joyous and heart-breaking, Academy Street journeys through six decades and one incredible story.


After the short stories, I wanted to get my teeth into something more meaty, so this short but highly acclaimed book leapt off the shelf at me (not literally).


The first half of this book was just beautiful. A reflection I felt on a disappeared Ireland, seen through the eyes of Tess – a tiny child who had already been exposed to the darker, sadder side of life. Tess is a sensitive soul, not always fitting in with her family; isolated from her peers and ignored for the most part by her father. Seeing these events through her eyes felt very natural and true to life. In fact there were a few specific people in my real life that came to mind as potential older versions of this bright yet stoic child. Her life is unremarkably, but incredibly well described.

Unfortunately, I was less enamoured by the second half of the book. Tess is described as having a heart of fire, but from here on out it seems to be one smouldering, at the end of it’s burn. The timeline speeds up and years pass within paragraphs – very different from the almost timeless chapters that proceeded it. Tess grows up, becomes a nurse and heads off to the USA. From this point onwards, the book felt to me like a weird tracking of all the stereotypes or tropes of Irish literature from our recent past.

Shy, over worked, only able to connect with other Irish people – check, check, check. Her purity of soul linked absolutely to her purity of her body so she falls madly in love and is impregnated during her first sexual encounter – check, check, check. The shame the shame, but the joy of parenthood – all present through somewhat more muted and less powerful a pleasure than the tropes would call for.

And the latter parts were a bit of a slog. Tess has a pretty poor relationship with her only child, dominated – perhaps realistically – by the father’s absence. There are times where this absence seems better realised than Tess’ emotional state. Check. Check. Check.

Her son grows up in the blink of an eye. They have a nice moment, then 9/11. And honestly, the inclusion of 9/11 and it’s use as an instrument within such a very Irish story felt as unexpectedly inserted in as that. Then the inevitable only visit back to Ireland.

One of those rare books where I come out of it and wondered who exactly it was written for and what exactly it’s intention was. It felt like it was capturing every existent tendency within Irish literature and putting it into one timeline. Honestly, it made me more appreciative of Sally Rooney’s Normal People and Ronan Hession’s Leonard and Hungry Paul. I delight that there are multiple other stories to be told that don’t fit within this more stereotypical framework. Irish lives have expanded outwards and I think that it’s fiction is better as a result.

Still, beautifully written and I’ll likely try something else by the author in the future.

SCORE Another 6/10

4 for the writing which was just beautiful and compelling (especially in the first half of the book) and 2 for the story line.


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 )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s