Click here to read about “Post-40 Bloomers,” a new monthly feature at The Millions.
Fifteen years-plus in the making, Mary Costello’s first story collection, The China Factory, is the work of a serious and talented writer. The experience of reading it was a curious one, which is to say compelling: I found myself not wanting to put the book down, and when I did, it was difficult to pick it back up. The resistance was emotional – there is much sadness, of the starkly honest and lonely variety, in Costello’s stories. She gets it so right – achingly right – how love and loss are indistinguishable.
Every time I girded up and continued, however, I was rewarded, and without delay; there is little warm-up period when you enter each of these stories. You are there, on the underside of a character’s skin, in her mind, behind his sightline, swimming pacifically in the underwaterness of their emotions, somehow muted and color-sharp at once. If there is something that ties these stories together, it is not so heady as a theme, like “the existential state of aloneness.” It is more that loneliness envelops the world of each story like a living, moving thing, and in the opening sentences, a kind of emotional atmosphere opens up, like a tiny mouth, where the reader enters, slips in quietly, whereupon the mouth closes, seals the reader in. If this description strikes you as sexual, then it’s not far off; these stories want all of you, mind and body and soul, like a consummation.
Mary Costello is not a formally trained writer of the creative-writing-program ilk. Now in her mid-40s, she has been a primary school teacher in Dublin for the last 20-some years. She started writing stories in her early twenties – before that, it had never occurred to her in any serious way that she might be a writer – and had early success with two stories, one published in Ireland’s (now-defunct) Sunday Tribune, the other shortlisted for the Hennessy Literary Award. She enrolled in a creative writing class back then, and attended a writers’ conference; but then her full-time work as a teacher took precedence, and, as she puts it, “life intervened,” she was not connected with a literary community, and she didn’t publish another story until 2010. It was The Stinging Fly literary magazine – champions especially of new Irish writers and the short-story form — that accepted her stories, and subsequently The Stinging Fly Press (founded in 2005, with four titles in print) that approached her about publishing a collection – which was released this past spring. It’s a wonderful Cinderella story, to my mind: the book received an enthusiastic review in The Guardian from the likes of Anne Enright.
As an autodidact who has labored, slowly, quietly, over the years, Costello demonstrates impressive story craft; her stories’ openings strike me as wonderfully instructive examples – classroom worthy — of getting right to it.
Outside my room the wind whistles. It blows down behind our row of houses, past all the bedroom windows and when I try to imagine the other bedrooms and the other husbands and wives inside, I hear my own husband moving about downstairs. (“Things I See”)
He left behind the warm waters of the bay, the seaweed, the blue of the Burren. He swam in a current of his own and hovered, like a skydiver in the dark. He would swim out far, underwater, to the Continental Shelf. He no longer felt man, but marine. He had a need to reach the depths, to glide to the silent darkness and feel the cold brush of luminous sea creatures […] In the shelter he dressed and wrung out his swimming trunks. He combed his hair and felt himself coming back to the world. Mona would be in the kitchen at that moment, clearing away the breakfast things. (“Sleeping With a Stranger”)
The summer I turned seventeen I worked as a sponger in a china factory. I walked to the end of our road every morning to catch my lift to the city with Gus Meehan, and every evening I came home with a film of fine dust lodged in the pores of my skin. From the back seat I had a view of Gus’s broad shoulders and the china clay caked in the creases of his neck and in his grey hair […] Gus was shy and deferential to everyone […] He had a slight stammer and drew his meaty hands close to him on the steering wheel, as if they might cause offence. (“The China Factory”)
He hears music when he wakes these mornings. The notes float up from below, pouring softly into the room, and for a moment he thinks it is Miriam, Miriam perched on the piano stool with her legs swinging and the purple-flowered wallpaper swirling around her and the notes spilling from her fingers […] He says nothing to Marie because, of course, there is no music, the music is in his head and Miriam is in Canada, a grown woman living alone in a beautiful glass house set into a wooded hill above Vancouver. (“Little Disturbances”)
I give these to you in succession like this because we can see, cumulatively, Costello’s gift for storytelling: expertly, simply, she lets us know, in these first words, both what the story is going to be about, and, beneath the surface of place and players and events, what the story is going to be about. The intimacies and dissonances, longings and losses, they are all here, plainly, in these first sentences; if emerging delicately from the shadows.
And it’s that understated, umbrous quality that draws us in and forward: the sense that ordinary lives are filled with extraordinary desire and disenchantment. In “Things I See,” a woman and her stay-at-home husband live together in persistent tension, while they also carry the shared, unspoken memory of his making a pass at her younger sister years before. In “Sleeping With a Stranger,” a man remembers a one-night extramarital intimacy, never confessed, and clings to it, while at his mother’s deathbed. In “Little Disturbances” an elderly man has the (correct) premonition of terminal illness, and his regrets begin to haunt him, the limitations of love both given and received. And in the title story, a woman looks back on the working-class life she escaped, via memories of the tragic death of a neighbor — a distant relative and factory co-worker who once acted heroically and prevented a mass murder.
Of the 12 stories in the collection, five feature male protagonists, either written in first person or close-third. I was interested to note that my three favorite stories were among these five. If Costello sometimes falters, for me it was evident in a pattern of narrative overreaching – forcing emotional exposition — toward the climax and conclusion in a few of the stories, particularly those featuring female protagonists. From “This Falling Sickness,” a story about the death of a woman’s ex-husband in a climbing accident, the shock of which brings back to her the death of their young son and the subsequent unraveling of the marriage:
She wanted to flee the graveyard and find their island out in the bay and run all day over the long grass and the dunes until she reached the pristine beach with the immaculate sands. There she would lie down in the dark. She would whisper his name to the sands; she would tell him there is no giving like the first giving, that what is given first cannot be regiven, what is first taken cannot be retaken. She would tell him she would never be the same again, or give the same or receive the same or love the same, that it was in him that all possibilities were first encountered, all beauty, all hope concentrated, that he had gone now and taken something and it could not be recovered and she left here, now, impaired, diminished, she was left wanting.
This passage reads like a bit like an exercise, an author’s note to self — the answer to the question, “What’s the emotional takeaway of this story?” It is the articulation of what wants to be evoked through action and detail, what the reader should feel – what the reader might well feel – at this late point in the story, if we weren’t so explicitly told to feel it.
I wrote to Mary Costello with a few questions. About her male-centered stories, she said that, for her, a story “usually starts with a character, or a character at a particular moment. It makes little difference to me if the character is male or female […] I find that when it comes to things of the heart we are amazingly similar and I write the male character’s story no differently to the female’s.” So perhaps my observation about emotional exposition is simply coincidental. One wonders, though, if there isn’t something to the notion that when we have a bit of distance from a character, we can see him, and his journey, more lucidly, can render with a lighter touch.
I also asked her about marital relationships in the stories. In her review, Anne Enright observed that “Costello’s characters are lonely, especially when they are in a relationship,” and described their sorrow as an “immaculate sadness.” This theme – of deep loneliness within marriage – is indeed evident throughout the collection. The layering of time, familiarity, unfulfilled hopes, and sometimes tragedy, erects walls between spouses that can neither be cracked open nor abandoned. From “Things I See”—
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 I am cornered too, and I will remain, because I cannot unlove him.
And from “Insomniac”—
‘When did you grow this cruel?’ She is talking into the dark.
He wonders what time it is. He thinks of time like a small worm crawling across the earth. He opens his mouth and whispers, ‘Go back to bed.’
These are not couples for whom parting ways is on the horizon; rather, these are men and women who will live inside their estrangement, who will bear it, and continue on. “I wasn’t at all conscious of this theme,” wrote Costello, “or of attempting to say anything about marriage – or anything else! These threads simply emerged, unknown to me. The stories were written over many years – some over fifteen and more years ago – and there was little awareness of anything other than writing each story when it needed to be written.” Costello herself was married for 10 years, when she was in her twenties.
Are the stories in The China Factory hopeless? I ask this question often of literary fiction; the answer is important to me. Interestingly, the question doesn’t seem quite right in Costello’s case. Strictly speaking, perhaps yes, there is a sense in which these characters are suspended in a state of unchanging melancholy and loss; but as Costello herself says, she is most interested in moments of “heightened states of fear,” which can bring “great awareness and clarity” – which is, you could say, a kind of hope. “Sorrow and grief are very present,” she went on, “because most people encounter these emotions and I cannot imagine not examining them – a fully lived life demands that we pore over them.”
And as to whether this melancholy is in some way an “Irish thing” (something I wondered about), Costello is of two minds:
I don’t know if there is something uniquely sad or tragic about the Irish voice? I think a great melancholy pervades the stories of many writers from many nations.
But the Irish are or were often regarded as inward looking, as having an introverted nature. Perhaps it’s our troubled past, our history, the legacy of oppression and famine and loss – loss of our language as well as our land – that has carved itself into our psyches and laid itself down in our blueprint, causing the melancholy to attach itself and linger.
I don’t know. My own feeling is that it’s the writer’s own inner landscape, her own personal unconscious rather than the collective unconscious of the nation, that shapes the stories and imbues them with their particular qualities.
Currently on hiatus from teaching to focus on new stories and a novel (or two), Mary Costello is hitting her stride. She has blogged about her fears as a debut author, the daily struggles of writing; further evidence, to my mind, that she is now firmly walking in the shoes of a writer, blooming in good time.