The River Capture

Mary Costello

Canongate, £14.99

Review by Nick Major

"When a river erodes the land and acquires the flow from another river or drainage system, usually below it, the first river is said to have captured the second in an act of piracy." This natural phenomenon, the name of which Mary Costello has taken for the title of her second novel, can – literally - cause the ground to move under our feet. As a metaphor for a sudden disruption in the life of her protagonist, Luke O’Brien, it is an apt one.

Costello also uses the metaphor to reflect the way some books incorporate others into their stream of words. Luke O’Brien is a self-pitying James Joyce scholar on a career break who lives alone in his family’s house on the banks of the River Sullane, Waterford. Joyce’s Ulysses, of course, is a palimpsest; Homer’s The Odyssey lies just under the surface. In the River Capture, Luke is obsessed with Joyce’s hero, Leopold Bloom, and throughout the novel we are drip-fed sentences from Ulysses as they float in and out of Luke’s mind.

Luke is an intelligent, if thrawn, man. He thinks he might have bi-polar disorder, and – like the pompous Casaubon in Middlemarch – is obsessed with finding "a sign or formula or compound containing the key of life." His hunch is that this "key" can be found in water: "he feels himself a protean creature and there is something he is meant to understand in that watery world, something fugitive and fleeting and very old."

When he is not off his rocker, Luke cares for his Great Aunt Ellen. She lives nearby and with Luke recalls the heyday of Ardboe House, when it was haven for the extended family. Luke dreams of filling up his ancestral home with "the happy racket" of a family again. He is also meant to be writing a book on Joyce or Bloom. Unsurprisingly, he is struggling to find anything original to say about them. Consequently, he spends a lot of time moping around. When a woman called Ruth enters his life, however, his hopes of familial happiness are rekindled.

Although he is old-fashioned, Luke is a tentative symbol of a more socially progressive and tolerant Ireland that has emerged in recent years, thanks largely to the waning authority of the Catholic Church. He lives, however, in the countryside, where traditional attitudes prevail. When he reveals bisexuality and his inelegant thoughts on identity, it causes some unease in his relationship with Ruth. But it is Aunt Ellen’s knowledge about Ruth’s family, and the repercussions for Ruth and Luke, that cause the greatest rupture.

The consequences of this revelation are laughably implausible. One can imagine Ellen, who is from an older generation still believing to the idea of "bad blood" but for Luke it simply doesn’t make sense, which makes his descent into a kind of dizzy madness seem overwrought and forced. It is at this point that the novel also changes direction, in form and style. The sudden "capture" of Luke’s life by another novelistic style – one that is composed of a series of long-winded questions and answers –makes for laborious reading. It is almost as if second half is composed of notes the author has made when she was creating Luke’s character, which might well be the point.

Regardless of this messy ending, Costello deserves praise for her attempts at formal experimentation, and her willingness to arrest the reader’s attention. The world, she seems to say, constantly presents us with bafflement and chaos and our lives are a constant struggle to find some enduring purpose or meaning; Luke takes this struggle to its extreme end. She also has a good ear for the subtleties of Irish dialect, but too much of her prose is hyperbolic and vague (sex, for example, is described as "the transmutation of lowly instincts into godly essence".)

Add this stylistic flaw to the other faults – the "key of life" musings, the superfluous passages about religion and Luke’s eating habits, and the mewling protagonist himself – and you end up with a rather boring novel.