Costello’s novel embodies Faulkner’s concept of “the human heart in conflict with itself.” What might be the sad rendering of an unnoticed life is enhanced by the prose of an author who peers beneath the surface to the heart within. Tess Lohan, born in western Ireland, is the product of a sheltered environment.
This family of means is struck by tragedy with the death of mother Elizabeth in her early 40s, leaving husband and children to mourn her loss and navigate their lives without her. Only a child when her mother dies, that sudden critical emotional vacancy creates an internal struggle in an impressionable child who finds it impossible to speak for a time, the loss of voice symbolic of her sensitive and insular temperament.
Tess's imagination is awash with images: the coffin bearing Elizabeth’s body, its final bed of dirt, the muted sounds of a suddenly quiet home, the loneliness of boarding school, a baby brother sent for a time to be cared for by an aunt, his cries no longer piercing the night.
While her father remains single, turning glum and taciturn with the weight of his family responsibilities, Tess finds solace in her relationship with her sister, Claire, bereft when Claire leaves Ireland to live with an aunt in New York City. Well-suited to the care of others, Tess attends nursing school, easily slipping away from home and siblings when offered an opportunity to go to New York like Claire. The solitary world of an introspective woman grows more comfortable in the city, where strangers go about their business and Tess is but one among many. The breadth and depth of her secret yearnings grow more complicated over time and an unexpected attraction that is never really articulated but acted upon in a passionate coupling quickly over but for the child born months afterward. Challenged in a new way by the birth of her son, Tess refuses to be compromised by shame, overcoming difficult circumstances with the quiet determination characteristic of her life and a wild love for the boy who grows in beauty before her eyes.
In this paean to a noble, emotionally complex woman who endures loneliness and refuses to entertain self pity, Tess Lohan emerges a memorable figure, an Irish child transported to a bustling city existence with few to appreciate her unassuming beauty or elusive dreams of happiness. Stoic, she treads her path without complaint, only the events of 9/11--so remarkably different from the landscape of her Irish youth--shaking the comfort she has fashioned from a solitary life: “There was no Eden… just the passage of time… tasks made easier by the passage of time.” In many ways, Tess embodies lonely women who pass their lives in relative obscurity, seeking peace in times of grief, knowing well the language of the heart.