Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 9, 2019

The River Capture (2019), by Mary Costello

A novel that pays glorious homage to Joyce? Of course I was always going to read Mary Costello’s The River Capture!

(For those new to this blog, James Joyce’s Ulysses is my desert island book. I don’t think I could ever get tired of reading it. See my Disordered Thoughts).

I haven’t read Mary Costello’s debut novel Academy Street but from the description at Goodreads, I think it shares the same preoccupations as The River Capture.  The central characters are defined by the deaths of their loved ones; love, when it comes, is calamitous; and fate is catastrophic. (See the review of Academy Street at Jacqui Wine for other similarities, notably the mute child and the retreat to a solitary life).

The setting, however, is not America, and the central character of The River Capture is not a young women but a solitary Irishman, come home from Dublin to the family farm.  Luke O’Brien is a schoolteacher, obsessed by Ulysses, so much so that he identifies with its famous characters Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus.  He teaches the book to his students, more so, it appears, than is warranted by the curriculum, and the boys indulge him, (as schoolboys are wont to do when a teacher’s eccentricities combine to provide amusement and to reduce their workload).

However, it is not these eccentricities which caused his departure from the school, but rather his determination to nurse a much loved aunt through her terminal illness. Luke has an unusual devotion to his family, visiting his elderly Aunt Ellen nearly every day, and still mourning the death of Aunt Josie who was ‘a bit slow’.  She was thought to have had normal intelligence until one day her sister fell down the well and died, and the shock of that, followed by her father’s death a short time later, made her mute for a long time.  People in the village say that she was a bit odd, a bit mad but Aunt Ellen demurs.  Unaware that Luke himself is not always well, she says that while this whole area has one of the highest rates of mental illness in the whole country, Josie was perfect before the accident.  Aunt Ellen idealises the perfection of childhood, and thinks that Una was lucky to die as a child and didn’t have to suffer the struggles of growing up and growing old. 

Aunt Ellen’s bitterness about her own life is held in check until Luke falls in love and hidden events of the past rise to the surface.  Ruth comes into his life via a dog that needs a home, and they are instantly attracted to each other.  They are able to transcend the issue of Luke’s bisexuality, but not Aunt Ellen’s hostility.  This calamity triggers Luke’s latent instability.

From a conventional novel that seems primarily about the cultural predisposition for holding onto long-ago betrayals instead of letting sleeping dogs lie, The River Capture changes direction. (As a river does: a river capture is a geological event that occurs when two rivers merge and both change direction).  This allusion is a metaphor for the way Luke’s fate is the catalyst for his brain to fall into disarray, while the stylistic shift into interrogative Q&A mode of the Catholic Catechism, as in the Ithaca chapter of Ulysses, signals the persisting power of conservative Irish culture.

Much of this second part of the novel seems bizarre until the reader realises that Luke is having some kind of ‘episode’.  Some of it illuminates Luke’s high intelligence, obsessions and quandaries; some of it seems extraneous, irrelevant and sometimes overwrought. For example, down in the cellar, he comes across Una’s satchel… untouched since she fell down the well.

Why were his hands shaking?

At the realisation that hers — his child-aunt’s — were probably the last hands that touched those pages.  That she had probably arrived home from school on the day of the Christmas holidays in December 1940, and flung the satchel under the stairs, not needing it again until a few weeks later.  Molecules of her sweat, her touch DNA, still detectable on the strap.

Did he read the contents of the jotter or copybooks that morning?

He leafed through a mix of essays, sums, grammar exercises and a night-time prayer in the jotter.  Neatly written joined handwriting, the capital letters extending to the top line, the ticks and corrections marked up in a teacher’s red pen, now faded to pink.  Essay titles, in chronological order: The Wood in Winter, St Rita, Sun Down, Lourdes and Bernadette, History of the Danes, Oíche Shamhna, Rubber, Eight Sentences on Diarmuid.  In the copybook, a mix of English, Irish and geography exercises: meaning of the poem ‘Adare’; Counties of Ireland, Lessons We Learned, Ports of Ireland, Pattern day; an Irish grammar exercise on the Tuiseal Ginideach; a letter to a friend dated 5 December 1940; a second essay on Winter. (p.168-9)

What impression of his child-aunt did he form from her writings?

That she was a child of earnestness, innocence, sincerity, obedience, compliance, adherence to religious practice; one who possessed an average intelligence and a certain formality; neat handwriter.  (p.169)

This sequence concludes with Luke’s realisation that Una died on the same day as James Joyce in January 1941, and this leads to a meditation on the last days of Joyce in Zurich, the unpredictability of death, and souls passing each other in the stratosphere, finally clasping hands and orbiting the earth over Dublin.

You have to be in the mood for this kind of stream-of-consciousness dressed up in a formulaic Q&A …  and though I was impressed by how clever this writing is, I wasn’t always in the mood.

Perhaps Aunt Ellen was on to something when she mused on the prevalence of mental illness in their village, but she may not have realised that she and others like her with inflexible attitudes are part of the problem.  Her hurt is real, but by refusing to let go — even by telling her story — she is passing on its power to hurt and inflicting it on the next generation. The River Capture suggests that though the power of the church is waning, Ireland’s social conservatism is still pervasive and sour memories of the past still have the power to damn the happiness of people who don’t fit the mould.  Luke’s preoccupation with Irish literary history makes Irish intellectual culture seem benign but still, it looks to the past.  By subverting it in this novel, Mary Costello is, I think, suggesting that it’s time to move on.

Author: Mary Costello
Title: The River Capture
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2019, 257 pages
ISBN: 9781925355314
Source: Bayside Library

Available from Fishpond:The River Capture



  1. I’m finding this kind of non-linear prose not to my taste any more; must be an age thing. I don’t have the patience I used to. I remember struggling with Ulysses as a young man, but finding it exhilarating. I dipped into it again recently and thought, no. Not again.


    • Ha, Simon, I remember my father saying something similar, but he was then much older than either of us!


  2. I don’t suppose I can blame authors, and especially Irish authors, for attempting to scale the peaks of Ulysses, but I mostly don’t like books that reference other books, however well done, mostly because I don’t follow – or often even notice – the references. You of course with your close reading of Ulysses, were able to (I very much enjoyed the Ithaca chapter review).


    • I hear you: I don’t think knowing Ulysses matters in the first part, but the second part would seem even weirder than it is if you didn’t recognise the allusion to Ithaca. I suspect that some might even link it with a police interrogation rather than the Catholic catechism, which would give it an entirely different tone…


  3. Thank you for such a thoughtful review of this novel. It’s good to hear about your responses to it, particularly given your fondness for Joyce and Ulysses. I loved Costello’s last book, Academy Street, but will very likely pass on this one, partly for the reasons you’ve highlighted here. There are too many other (more appealing) books calling me right now, so this feels skippable in the great scheme of themes…


    • Thanks Jacqui… I found your review of Academy Street, and will link now to it in my review, because (as I say on my comment on your blog)
      it’s interesting to see that there are more similarities than I had guessed at: the mute child, responding to trauma by not speaking for a long time, and the retreat into a solitary life.


  4. I’ll be adding this to the reading stack. I loved Academy Street – it’s a book I still think about, years after reading it.


  5. Did you know there’s a review of her short story collection here on this blog? Karenlee Thompsons wrote a guest review here:


  6. […] The River Capture, by Mary Costello […]


  7. […] The River Capture, by Mary Costello […]


  8. […] (Lisa Hill has reviewed it here) […]


  9. I like the sound of this and sent it to a family member as a gift, can’t wait to hear what they think of it, I love books with references to other books and this makes me want to read Ulysses and The Odyssey! The latter especially after recently reading Circe as well. A feminine perspective of the Odyssey sounds to my liking, now I see there is a new translation that’s been noted as such.


    • Hi Claire, I love the Odyssey!
      I haven’t read that new translation yet, I’ve read it in an old Penguin edition, and I can’t remember who the translator was, and the Robert Fagles one, which I liked so much, I then went and bought his translation of The Iliad and The Aeneid, which I’d also read before.
      To me, these ancient epics are like Shakespeare, we read them for their timeless stories of human nature.


  10. […] For other views on this novel, please see these reviews by Kim and Lisa.   […]


  11. […] reviews by JacquiWine and Lisa […]


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