Mary Costello’s debut book of short stories, The China Factory, is a contemplative collection of inward-looking characters that seem almost too sensitive for this world. When the stories work (which is most of the time) they are beautifully written, sensitive portrayals of individuals at the end of something: a marriage, a life, or their rope.
A representative example is “Sleeping With a Stranger,” the tale of a man who has let his marriage drift and stagnate. He lives in a reverie of lost possibility: remembering a brief affair that charged his soul, but that he feels caused him to abandon his marriage emotionally, as the everyday can never capture the emotional highs of the unique, the once-off, the unexpected. This situation represents the knife edge many Mary Costello’s stories walk in the reader’s mind: whether or not to damn the protagonist for wallowing in self-pity and regret, or be carried along by Costello’s ability to pull us into her character’s worlds so completely that it’s only in retrospect that we begin to harbor the uncharitable thoughts that if we knew some of these people in real life we’d probably slap them and tell them to pull themselves together.
As a writer, I always want to work out how an author succeeds, how she can manipulate our emotions, have us rooting for even unsympathetic characters’ tentative steps. With Costello is seems to be her ability to evoke a character’s emotional state that speaks to us as readers and makes us forgive them anything. The title story, “The China Factory,” is a perfect example. A young girl goes to work in a big factory making porcelain crockery during the summer before she goes off to university. While there, she is a stew of emotion: excitement at mixing with a range of people she clearly wasn’t let mix with before, confusion at the class and religious barriers she has to navigate, anxiety that she is there under false pretenses (she has not told anyone she’s leaving for university in the autumn), and a slight embarrassment over a distant bachelor cousin who gives her a lift to work every day in his car, but is a figure of ridicule for the girls she now works with. Costello evokes the atmosphere of the factory floor and the anxious excitement of the girl at her first job soaking everything in so beautifully I found myself simultaneously enjoying the story and reminiscing about my own first job, remembering my own anxiety and excitement.
“All day long the radio churned out the pop hits of that summer and the sun spilled in through skylights and fell in yellow pools on the factory floor. I would sigh and think of home and the farm work and when the thoughts grew lonesome and the small ache began to surface, I would carry my basin over to the big steel sink near the entrance and spill out the cloudy white water. I smiled when I passed the other girls these first days, and longed to speak, but feared that words would betray the yearning for friendship that I felt inside.”
This is Costello’s skill, this ability to set a scene so well, so evocatively, that the reader can’t help but find common ground within our own memories and feel the truth, the accuracy of her words. This is in contrast to other short story writers who shock us with new and unfamiliar situations and carry us along on a wave of wonder at the unexpected; Costello carries us on a wave of joy for her honest observation and understanding of human nature. Mary Costello has clearly been there, she know the human heart in all its weakness and treachery. This is why it was only later, when I could look at the stories from the outside, with emotions undisturbed by her prose, that I began to reflect that I wouldn’t want to be best friends with some of her characters. But as many writers have reflected, unsympathetic characters are the most interesting.
Another such standout story is “And Who Will Play Charon?” A man looks back at his life and considers a women he could have loved, could have married, but circumstances separated them and he settled into a life of self-satisfied bachelorhood. The woman came back to the village some time later in mysterious circumstances and he never made any real effort to see her, to rekindle the flame of their relationship. Only now, decades later, after her burial does his curiosity get the better of him and he takes steps to discover her story. In retrospect, he’s a pathetic example of humanity, but his regret, his anxiety, and his slavery to habit and convention are so well drawn that he’s wonderfully human, completely real.
The final story, “The Sewing Room,” also shows the smothering power of convention, how societal expectation has been allowed to trump individual desire so often in Irish history (although is it any different anywhere?). An old schoolteacher has retired. On the occasion of a parish function to thank her for a lifetime of dedication she reflects on the story that nobody knows, how she had a child out of wedlock and gave up that child for a cousin to adopt. She has lead an exemplary life as a pillar of her rural community ever since, but it’s not enough, not nearly enough. She’s a sad image for the Ireland in the twentieth century: huddled in her sewing room making glamorous dresses that she has no place to wear, while in public she acts the role expected of her.
Is life in Ireland very much different today? The young may be told to follow their bliss, and be true to themselves, but is the societal expectation of conformity still as strong as ever? After this impressive first book of short fiction, I look forward to seeing what Mary Costello turns her attention to in future stories.
Readers eager to read Mary Costello’s stories for themselves can buy The China Factory from The Book Depository <affiliate link> (free shipping worldwide) or support the Irish economy by purchasing it from kennys.ie (also free shipping worldwide).
The China Factory is also available as an ebook for the Kindle.
I bought my copy at a branch of Easons.
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