There’s something incredibly joyous about reading an excellent book from a small press (and yet depressing that these presses are small; that the larger presses are capable of producing stacks of dross and ignoring the talent that’s being snapped up by their ill-funded brethren. Anyway. Read on.). The Stinging Fly is probably one of Ireland’s best outlets for quality new literary fiction – we reviewed their latest anthology, Sharp Sticks, Driven Nails, last year, and now, hot off the press, comes the début collection from Irish writer, Mary Costello. And this is the sort of book that would make the reputation of a small press, if it wasn’t, of course, already thoroughly made. The China Factory is a beautifully-designed paperback, twelve stories long, and Costello’s prose is careful and precise and heart-breaking. I should warn you that they’re fairly sad stories; there’s light in them, but it’s heavily tempered with loss and anxiety and loneliness. So take your time about it when you read; pace yourself. And it’ll be worth the effort.
The stories are mostly set in the West of Ireland, in Mayo, Salthill or the Burren, with excursions east and north, to Dublin, Belfast and beyond. Costello’s characters are farmers and the children of farmers, writers who’ve left their rural backgrounds behind, women who’ve married labouring country men, teachers in rural schools. And the prevailing sense I had, reading, was that of isolation: the loneliness of marriage, of parenthood, of mourning; of life beyond towns and cities, and the distance between a life in the city and its roots in the country; of post-traumatic stress, of fatal illness, of writing itself. The characters express this with a careful, worried precision. In ‘You Fill Up My Senses’, the child protagonist watches her father in an unguarded moment after her mother has left the room; ‘[He] stayed standing in the middle of the kitchen for a minute with his arms by his side, staring at the tiles.’ In ‘The Astral Plane, the main character sits with the man with whom she might have an affair: ‘She felt his enormous struggle, his anguish. She would have liked to lead him to it, and place it back inside him.’ There’s an economy to the prose here, and I know that’s an over-used phrase, but it’s true: there’s a proper sense of depth to each moment and to each character, and the whole effect is of a situation brimming with emotion – and we, the readers, are seeing only the crucial portions of each, larger story.
The collection opens with a story about community and social discomfort, the eponymous ‘The China Factory’, in which the young narrator has a summer job at a local factory, where she tries to fit in with the other girls without telling them that she’ll soon be off to college. To impress them, and to her own mortification, she covers up her family connection to a co-worker, Gus – and of course it’s Gus who turns out to be the best of the lot. It’s a strong opener – the dislocation between the intellectual and her surroundings, the clash between family and social manoeuvrings. Costello’s heroine says, ‘I would have liked to have mitigated the loss and the guilt I felt at leaving them behind, the feeling that I was escaping and walking away. It is not an easy walk, I longed to tell them, but I’m not sure anyone was listening.’ The next piece, ‘You Fill Up My Senses’, is a child’s love-song to her mother – her unhappy mother, married down, with five children to her name – and it’s my favourite: like plenty of other pieces here (‘The Patio Man’, ‘Little Disturbances’, ‘The Falling Sickness’) it nails a dreadful sort of entombment that can accompany family life: the accumulation of grief, the indelible steps that are marked off by marriage and birth, or, in the other pieces, by miscarriage and illness. But the huge, yearning, joyful and furious love that infuses ‘You Fill Up My Senses’ (and what a title!) – that’s beautiful.
There’s humour here, too; though ‘Little Disturbances’ isn’t what you’d call a happy story (a man regrets his bad relationship with one of this children while his wife goes to collect his ominous-sounding medical test-results), one passage has had me chuckling for days. Slightly abbreviated:
‘At the front gate he sees Christy Kelly, bucket in hand, crossing the road towards his yard.
‘You’re late milking her,’ he calls out, moving towards Christy.
‘Ah, I am, I am. Sure it’s only a hobby at this stage. None inside there’ll touch a drop of it when it’s not pasteurised.’
‘And what do you do with the milk, so – when you have no calves to feed?’
‘I fuck it down the drain.’’
Not everything is pitch-perfect, mind. I didn’t think all the relationships rang true – Grace, in ‘Sleeping With A Stranger’ seemed more wish-fulfilment than real encounter, and perhaps that’s intentional, but her monologue on her actor-love felt a touch contrived and overly-expository to me, and I can’t imagine what would compel her to return to the narrator like that. The lead in ‘Charon’ had the ring of a John Banville character to him – the male intellectual struggling to connect with the lesser mortals around him – and I’m not sure he’s fully revealed in the constraints of a short story. But it’s a rich portrait nonetheless. I’m criticising a collection worthy of much praise. Costello is one hell of a writer. Look at this, on insomnia, in ‘Insomniac:
‘He thinks he could sleep through a storm, that his sleeping self would sense the elements fully at play, fully occupied, leaving him free to fall into deep forgetful sleep.’
Any Cop?: A fantastic, well-chosen début, for short-story aficionados and newcomers alike. Nice one, Stinging Fly.