The title story in Mary Costello's striking debut collection of short stories, The China Factory, is told by a young girl who works in a china factory during the summer before college.
Smelling of sweat and last night’s beer, Gus is the elderly bachelor who gives her a lift into work each day. He is regarded as an eccentric odd ball, until his intervention in a dramatic incident at the factory which renders him heroic. The turn around between figure of fun and hero is subtly and masterfully achieved by the author. But Costello breaks the reader in rather easily here, as some of the stories which follow go much deeper, and indeed sear far more with pathos and tragedy.
In her mostly rural, West of Ireland scenarios, she has a way of skirting around serious illness, almost like the way country people used to avoid mention of the word cancer. She deals bravely and credibly with the way people might react to such disturbing diagnoses, as in the brilliant You Fill up My Senses and Little Disturbances.
She has the knack of laying her finger on just the kind of detail that might attract a woman to a man, or vice versa, but she can also render the panicky disorientation when a relationship is threatened by an unhinged spouse, as in Insomniac.
Her characters are tempted, fragile, romantic dreamers, or they sense that something dreadful is going to happen. They may be confused and insecure, like the childless young wife in Room in Her Head: “She did not know what she felt. She did not know what was coming.” Costello is outstanding in her ability to construct such sentences of plain-speaking simplicity.
Spouses ultimately settle for each other, despite tensions and rows, as in Sleeping with a Stranger. "Mona would never know the depths of him. He would die a faithful husband. They were bound together by the flesh of three sons and the dread of loneliness."
The Sewing Room begins as Alice, a primary teacher, is about to attend her retirement do in the local parish hall. The woman reviews her ill-starred life, and the occasion years beforehand when she was obliged to hand up her baby son for adoption. Alice has since heard by chance that her son is now a lawyer working in Boston.
Time and time again in the stories, she has a daring way with pathetic fallacy, enlisting nature in her tales, to lend refreshing mood and colour. In The Sewing Room, it is entirely fitting that Alice should think of the sea, some distance from her lonely West of Ireland home, the next parish Boston, as it were. “She would like to stand at the shore and look into the ocean’s depths and let the waves break over her bare feet and watch them turn and flow back out into the ocean again, to break on other shores.”
One certainly hopes to come across further work from Mary Costello, whose stories are long-listed for the Guardian First Book award, the winner of which will be announced on Thursday November 29.