In this dense and visceral novel we are presented with Luke O’Brien who lives alone – with the exception of Lucy the cat – in his old family home Ardboe House in County Waterford. It is not the largest of the “big houses” of the area and the family have only held it since the 1920s but he can no longer maintain it properly. But living there has involved Luke – now in thirties – in a web of family and community links, and expectations that still provide continuity for him as his family have dispersed or died.

This tale is told through the eyes and voice of Luke. For a while he escaped the area to become a teacher in Dublin and even had a long-term partner. But that has ceased. He carries dreams of returning to the city, but his ability to achieve that is slipping through his fingers. After compassionate leave to look after a dying aunt, he is now officially on “study leave” so he can write a planned book on James Joyce – a book that is unlikely to ever appear. Why Joyce? Through Luke’s thoughts in this book it is clear he sees his life, or more importantly his character as closely akin to that of Leopold Bloom.

It is dropped almost incidentally that the Ardboe area has a larger than normal number of families with mental illness. But as Luke’s ineffectual daily life is displayed in greater and greater detail it becomes clear that he is obviously in the depths of depression. Maybe this is caused by mourning that trips painful family memories – except that reading between the lines it becomes clearer that he probably has bipolar disorder and that is impacting on both his actions and thoughts, which are given in great detail. It would be unkind to describe parts of this novel as like medical case notes, but Costello’s depiction of a mind with that disorder is so reliably presented that it is almost painful to read – the stressed mind is placed so immediately in front of your eyes. The stretching of time in depression is interspersed with hints at more manic or obsessive phases of behaviour. These are often given as great streams of ideas, memories or “consciousness” often embedded with his interest in Joyce and Bloom.

Luke muses not just on his present and possible future, but on his past and that allows a more detailed family history to appear as well, parents, sister and aunts of whom only one remains, being supported by Luke, but providing essential stability for him too. We are shown the obligations, courtesies and copings of a small community with very few secrets, but with memories of old history and grudges than run across both the families and their neighbours. It also encompasses the wider traits of rural island too – its values, religious divides, economy and emigrations. Almost seamlessly these vignettes are melded with the lush current landscape – and river – around the house. A landscape that is seen by Luke as more certain and lasting than human life and emotions.

This is an extremely fine novel, although one that needs to be read slowly so as to appreciate the small jewels of detail and not be overwhelmed by the stresses of another’s mind so fully depicted. It is likely that those well acquainted with Joyce and his literary character would find even deeper depths of meaning that would pass the non expert reader by. But if you can cope with mental struggles (and often distress) of Luke then this will be a brilliant as well as eye opening read.

Hilary White 4/4

The River Capture by Mary Costello
Canongate Books 9781782116431 hbk Oct 2019