In this darkly beautiful first novel, a girl finds happiness elusive and short-lived as she comes of age in Ireland and becomes a mother in the U.S. in the last century’s latter half.
Tess Lohan is 7 when her mother dies in the opening pages, which recall in their capturing of a young person’s drifting impressions Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. She notes the Adam and Eve pattern of the wallpaper in her bedroom when a blackbird flies in and tears off a strip for its nest. For a novel generally lean in style, it’s a fat image heavy with the toll paid, the Eden lost, for the knowing of good and evil. After training as a nurse, Tess immigrates to New York City, where one night’s love leaves her a single mother. Costello wrote of an illegitimate son given up in infancy in one of the fine stories from her first book, The China Factory (2012)—“there was nothing sweeter, ever, in her life after that.” For Tess, motherhood “turned a plain world to riches,” bringing a taste of joy and then a bundle of pain, a boy who rejects her in resentment of the absent, oblivious father. When he moves out, “[h]er rooms could barely endure the silence left in his wake.” In the final pages, as Tess in her 60s revisits Ireland for the first time, the wallpaper returns because her family home has been razed, “the Garden of Eden...toppled by a wrecking ball.” And in prose that recalls the peroration of Joyce’s “The Dead,” she realizes there will be no Eden, “[j]ust time, and tasks made lighter by the memory of love, and days like all others.”
Costello renders her homely, knowing heroine with craft and compassion in this sad, slim, rich novel.