Wednesday 16 October 2019

The River Capture by Mary Costello: Love, memory and human nature meet down by the river

Fiction: The River Capture

Mary Costello

Canongate, €16.99

Mary Costello's second novel is brimming with tenderness
Mary Costello's second novel is brimming with tenderness
The River Capture

Hilary A White

Luke O'Brien is at sea near a bend in a river. Existing in self-imposed exile back on the family estate in the Irish countryside, Luke has turned his back on bright lights and big city, not to mention most forms of intimate human contact. The River Sullane flows past the land and there are animals, wild and domesticated, frolicking about the place to provide the odd lift out of himself.

And there is his beloved James Joyce and the countless little nods to Ulysses that Mary Costello sprinkles about the interior of Luke's consciousness, streaming and meandering as the Sullane and Liffey flow in literary parallel.

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There are lots of other books too, and there is wine, and if he ever does feel the need to reach out to someone close between ambitious notions of writing a Joyce study guide or opening a B&B, there is his ailing aunt Ellen to look after nearby.

The mysterious ways of the universe present a young local woman called Ruth, and love blossoms seemingly out of nowhere for Luke. Of all the people who could have knocked on the door of his creaking family farmhouse, it was her, but there are currents and eddies and other riverine metaphors that will have something to say about any ideas of a smooth voyage.

Everything is turned vigorously over in the man's scattered mind.

Conversing liberally with Ulysses, both in language (Latin quips, ancient allusions) and structure (an abrupt but fascinating switch to the Q&A format for its final pages), this is a modernist take on the country novel (Edna O'Brien and John McGahern are name-checked in one delightful daydream that the pair had had a secret love affair and communicated in code to one another through their works).

The trope of the lost protagonist seeking reflection and solace in nature is here, but it is really human nature Costello is most focused on.

She pans backwards to take in themes and ideas that shimmer with complexity and sensation, everything from bioacoustics, to Dostoyevsky and inherited demons.

The micro becomes the cosmic, and vice versa, as Luke's small housebound steps transcend huge chasms of perception and memory.

As we progress, a mind doing itself no favours through over-exertion is placed on display, convulsing and writhing in the throes of what can only be described as near-mania.

Costello's second novel (after 2014's Irish Book Awards-scooping Academy Street) is one of the most intriguing works by an Irish writer since Mike McCormack's Solar Bones (2016), and you'd hope it can draw in a similarly adventurous readership to appreciate its unconventional wares.

Despite its elliptical manoeuvres, shifts in tempo and those unashamedly Joycean formal peculiarities, it is also full of tenderness, beauty and some deeply affecting human introspection.

These are the flavours in The River Capture that perhaps linger the longest afterwards, when the voices in Luke's head have come back down out of the nebula. Just bear in mind that the water's edge is rarely a good place to go in search of a sure footing.

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