The China Factory, a collection of short stories by Mary Costello published by The Stinging Fly has garnered great praise in the literary world. It was listed for the first Guardian book award and is being treated as a potential classic collection of short stories by all print and blog world commentators. Literary frame might have come to her overnight but the stories were many years in the making. I will say as my preliminary note that it was time well spent. I think that this collection will join the classics of Irish short stories, a very elite company of the greatest writers.
As I normally do in posting on collections of short stories, I will post on six of the twelve stories in The China Factory. Many people who write about collections of short stories (I hate the term "book review") indulge in generalizations about the stories without giving their readers any real sense of what the stories are like. To me it shows more respect to the artist to post on their individual stories and then try to explain what you see as possible common elements in the stories and offer some suggestions as to why you admire the work. Taking a lesson from Walter Pater, I try to write appreciations of what I read. In the case of Mary Costello, this is quite easy.
"The China Factory" (16 pages)
"The sight of a bible in a hotel room now, or a drunk in a doorway, or even my mother setting down her china cups, over even King Kong, all called Gus to mind"
The title story in the collection is a wonderful work about ties to your past, about guilt on leaving it behind, about life in an Irish factory and about the intrusion of violence and death into the lives of ordinary people, assuming contra to the facts that there are any ordinary people in Ireland. It is a tale of cruelty and kindness, the banalities of life interrupted by a Flannery O'Connor like sacred moment of transfixing terror. It is a story of a young woman who loves the reading life and how it has shaped her life, how it has helped her to escape the cycle of factory work and isolated and connected her as a person. The story opens on a seventeen year old woman's first day on the job in a factory that makes china plates and such, mostly for the tourist trade. The narrator starts out in the lowest position in the factory, a sponger whose job it is to clean the plates before they are decorated. We see what is like to work in the factory. Most of the people working there are from families all whom work in factories and such. We see the girl, different from the others because of her love of books (we will see this mentioned again in the stories of Costello) learning to get along with others in the factory and we are a bit happy when she seems to be doing well. There is a lot in this story and I do not desire to tell too much of the plot. Every day she rides to work with an older man who also works there. The other women at the factory tease her because he smells terrible and looks worse. He will transcend them all before the story is over. The narrator has a secret she kept from the factory when she was hired, she is just doing this until she goes to college, unlike most she has a hope for more. There is sudden violence and a senseless death in this story caused maybe by excessive drinking (lots of drinking in the Irish short story, way more than you see in short stories from India or the Philippines.) There is a segment in the story, readers will know what I mean, that made me think of Flannery O'Connor, though the story is not as overtly theological as O'Connor. I will boldly say I think Flannery O'Connor would have liked this story. I know I did. In the quote from the story we have the basics of the Irish short story, the bible, mother, drinking and memories of the past. This story is a great work of art that would repay repeat readings very well. I read it three times.
"Things I See" (11 pages)
"Beside him, with my pale skin and fair hair, I am like an insignificant underground animal, looking out at him through weak eyes".
"Things I See" is a powerful story about a woman who is a spectator of her own perceptions and thoughts. She reflects on her thoughts as much as the object of her thoughts. The story, told in the first person, begins with the woman thinking about herself listening to the familiar sounds of her husband downstairs in the morning doing his routine. The wife works and her husband stays at home with the children. She enjoys knowing in her mind just what he is doing. I thought I know my own wonderful wife sometimes thinks of my routine activities and it somehow brings her pleasure to be able to recall them. Costello has captured these feelings wonderfully. The woman's reflections on her husband and their children are beautiful and deeply felt. The woman is very observing of the physicality of her husband, his strong arms and long torso. She very much loves a man she supports. He is also darker than her so we enter into areas of why this matters so much, why does being pale make her feel insignificant. Something very sad and shameful happens in this story but I will not relay it. Married people will find a lot to think about in this story, I certainly did.
"This Falling Sickness" (12 pages)
"Flocks of seagulls circled and shrieked above the graves as the mourners gathered close'".
Death must love the Irish. Not just any kind of death, not your death of old age but crazy violent senseless events where the ordinary course of lives is destroyed in a moment. Two people die in "This Falling Sickness". It is told in the third person and is about a woman in her second marriage trying to deal with the news that her first husband was just killed in a mountain climbing accident. This amazing story has a lot to tell us how memories of past relationship infect our existing one.
"And Who Will Pay Charon" (11 pages)
"All my life music and books have been the refuge of my mind, the means of striving towards something pure and absolute and sublime.
This very interesting story evokes death before we even begin to read it. Unlike most of the other stories, it is told in the first person by a man in his sixties. The opening lines intrigued me. "I heard she was out". We wonder who she is and what she is out off, a prison or a mental hospital, we quickly learn she has been hidden away for years by her family, coming out only when her people died.. . We sense the man once had a relationship with her but when he attempts to talk with him she has no memory of him. The man often thinks about what he might have missed by never marrying or having children. He also wonders what he escaped from. His aunt dies and leaves him a house. As the man goes back in his memory we see his long loneliness is related to the woman who he seems to have had a relationship with. Costello slowly unfolds all this for us and we have to be active readers to construct the past. The man does not have a bad life, he is a teacher of the classics, he makes little trips, fixes his meals and listens to music. As he thinks back on his teaching career, he wonders if he ever made a difference in the lives of his students. One day he sees a funeral procession, half a dozen cars, and he asks who it is for. It was for the woman, she is called odd and we learn her brother found her dead in her bed. He goes to her house in a very moving scene where a whole life comes down to some left debris. He reads in the paper of meaningless deaths of climbers (this the second reference to climbers being killed in an accident in these stories, is this to be seen as an Icarus reference) and of a horrible murder and rape of a woman. This powerful story, there is much more in it than I have mentioned, is about the ever present closeness of death. He thinks back on Homer and the Greek gods and he seems to close out on a reflection on the futility of the divine.
"The Sewing Room" (13 pages)
"Tears Fall on her hands. She hears the faint hiss of the lamp. She looks around at the walls. Eventually her heart beat slows. There is no reponse, there will be no response, just the long wait in the rooms, and the sea sighing in the distance"
Death haunts these stories, memories of the death of others and a contemplation of our own. What joys there are in these stories are small ones. This story about a woman getting ready to go to a dinner in honor of her retirement from many years as a teacher. Her passion is for sewing, developed since her brother Manus died seven years ago. She never married, there is a terrible secret at the heart of this story. There is no sex without guilt in Ireland. There is terrible sadness in this story. The woman knows there will be lots of her old students there telling stories about her classes and she also knows she probably will not recall any of them. She quite does not want to even go to the event.
There are six more stories in this great collection, each one a superb work of art. I hope to post again on this collection in 2013 during The Irish Quarter III event which hopefully will begin March 1, 2013 and will run from one to six months.
There are very well deserved glowing print reviews of this collection. It is acutely observed, the prose is of great beauty with an almost orphic quality. The people in these stories lead very ordinary lives. Much like the great Sherwood Anderson , Costello sees the deep pathos in the lives of seemingly unremarkable people. It is not just kings who lead tragic lives. There is great sadness in these stories and I think they are very rooted in the tradition of the Irish short story.
I endorse The China Factory to any and all who love the story story. If you read it this year you perhaps can one day loook back and say you saw it as a classic the year it was published.
There is a very interesting interview with Mary Costello here in which she tells us something of her background, the history of the stories, and shares with us the names of her favorite writers.
This collection was published by The Stinging Fly. You can learn more about it and read some of her stories online on their web page.
Mary Costello is originally from East Galway and now lives in Dublin. Her stories have been anthologised and published in New Irish Writing and in The Stinging Fly. .
The Reading Life