It’s week three of Reading Ireland Month and today I’m sharing thoughts on a book of short stories by Irish author Mary Costello, The China Factory.
Threads of Inspiration
I’ve heard many say good things about her debut novel Academy Street and when her most recent novel The River Capture was published, a self-confessed homage to James Joyce’s Ulysses, I decided I would start at the beginning with Costello’s short stories.
I will read The River Capture later, as April is the One Dublin, One Book initiative and their chosen read for 2022 is Nora by Nuala O’Connor another book with a James Joyce connection. It is a bold reimagining of the life of James Joyce’s wife and muse, Nora, the model for his character Molly Bloom in Ulysses.
The Dublin City Libraries initiative encourages people to read a book connected with the capital city during the month of April every year.
Capturing a Voice
The 12 stories that make up The China Factory create a strong sense of authorial voice. Highly observant, sensitive characters, steeped in melancholy. They are practiced at holding back, trying not to make a ripple in the external world, until unforseen events pitch them into interactions, all the while controlling that emotional seepage.
In the opening story, The China Factory, a young woman works a summer job in a china factory, catching a ride with a quiet man named Gus, who she is distantly related to. She works at the sponger’s station, wiping off lines the moulds leave on clay cups.
I smiled when I passed the other girls those first days, and longed to speak, but feared that words would betray the yearning for friendship that I felt inside.
For a while she becomes closer to the girls, listening to their gossip, they quiz her about Gus, the freak, sharing an overheard story of his childhood that disturbs her. When a wayward man appears with a gun, Gus will surprise them all, and years later the impact of that summer job, his actions and her guilt will continue to haunt her.
In Things I See a woman lies in bed, hyper aware of her husbands movements downstairs, she relays scenes in her mind of being close to him, but even in her imagination she holds back. She fears not growing old, but of growing different.
There is something severe and imperious in Don’s bearing that makes me resist.
She works full time and her husband cares for their six year old child. Her sister Lucy who is visiting, seems more at ease in the family than she does. The things she sees, hears, picks up on, imagines, occupy her mind, creating a distance, a corner from which she has entrapped herself. A witness. Stifled. Knowing she will not change anything, though her indecision will imprint itself on her face and in her demeanour.
And I think this is how things are, and this is how they will remain, and with every new night and every new wind I know that am cornered too, and I will remain, because I can not unlove him.
Drudgery, Dignity and Denial
The stories examine aspects of everyday life and highlight the hidden selves, the thoughts beneath the actions, the things that people hide from each other, from themselves, the cover stories and meaningless conversations that patch over the cracks that might reveal the reality.
In The Patio Man, a gardener knows nothing about his employer, a young frail woman observes him from the window, she struggles to articulate what she requires from him, until the moment she must ask him to drive her to the hospital. Still nothing is ever said, just small talk that takes the mind elsewhere, far from the catastrophic event occurring in the present.
The collection opens with an epigram from Rilke’s poem Autumn:
And night by night, down into solitude,
the heavy earth falls far from every star.
We are all falling. This hand’s falling too –
all have this falling-sickness none withstands.
which sets the tone and theme of falling – into and out of love, of relationships, to one’s death, in and out of the kaleidoscope of emotions, whether expressed or suppressed, no one is immune to the falling-sickness.
While the stories capture that voice particular to the author, that melancholy can wear on the reader, repeated time and again as it does, manifesting in the many losses and unfortunate events each story portrays, the quiet outer acceptance of discordant inner turmoil.
That said, I am looking forward to engaging with a longer story, hoping for the chance of redemption a novel might bring.
Mary Costello, Author
Mary Costello is an Irish short story writer and novelist from Galway now living in Dublin.
Her collection of short stories, The China Factory ( 2012), was nominated for the Guardian First Book Award.
Her second book and first novel, Academy Street, was shortlisted for the International Dublin Literary Award, the Costa First Novel Prize and the EU Prize for Literature in 2014. The novel went on to win the Irish Novel of the Year Award as well as the Irish Book of the Year. Her second novel The River Capture was published in 2019.