Tourism in a treacherous environment
The China Factory
By Mary Costello Text Publishing, 176pp, $22.99
IN The Sewing Room, the final story in this fine debut collection by Irish writer Mary Costello, a young woman in trouble is giving up her little boy. He bites into an apple ‘‘ with his small new teeth’’ and leaves ‘‘ little nibbled marks on the tough skin’’. When she finds the nibbled apple in her bag two nights later, she’d rather have her head cut off than feel what she feels right then.
Costello’s aim with each of the 12 stories in The China Factory is to make her characters feel different kinds of pain. There’s the pain of lost opportunity, of personal failure and, most of all, of important moments that are all too brief, forever after begging to have been felt more strongly or more accurately seen.
This is a book that may take readers a little time to like. The title story, which opens the collection, is about a girl who works in a china factory — smells and textures are milked for all they’re worth — until she finds a better life. It feels a little paint-by-numbers Alice Munro (with whom Costello has been compared): a crazed person enters the story from nowhere and changes its course; bad things befall the people the narrator has left behind.
The crucial elevation, which
introduces Costello’s singular narrative game, comes only on the final page. Here, it becomes clear the narrator both longs and does not long to have saved everybody else along with her. On the one hand, there’s real altruism to her regret. On the other, if she had saved them, she would not have been the one who escaped.
This revelation is at once so cruel and bright and hopeless that it works almost like a classic plot twist. It also introduces the atmospheric conditions of this collection: turbulent and dark. It’s tempting to frame The China Factory as a collection of Irish stories, using it to take the temperature of a foreign place — and indeed there’s something particular to the characters’ emotional make-ups that differs from those found in most contemporary Western fiction. We seem to value an ability to mix sadness and humour into a bittersweet, backhanded emotional punch. But Costello’s people veer naturally and completely between these feelings; they’re always equally vivid, but they’re also kept discrete.
So while Costello pays almost no attention to physical landscape, it’s literary tourism of a different kind. Her stories map internal topographies, people’s brightest and darkest times. Since the moods of the stories are so liable to turn on a dime, the word you might choose for this environment is treacherous.
This Falling Sickness is a story that literalises this emotional landscape. It’s about multiple people’s coincidental deaths by falling, which parallel and embellish a marriage’s metaphorical descent. But usually such events are kept snugly inside the characters, which puts a delicious set of perception-based problems into play. In Things I See, a woman in a lonely marriage chronicles the accumulated instances of distance between herself and her husband, being forced to think, ‘‘ do I magnify the words and the pain and the silences? Do I?’’
Almost all the stories examine issues between men and women; one story leaves a man thinking, ‘‘ It is not the same for men at all.’’ But of course it’s pretty bleak for everyone.
Stitching thematically similar stories into a collection can be risky. But The China Factory is a collection that plays to its format’s strengths. Since you know a character’s gains in life will generally be fleeting, those gains begin to hum with their own pre-emptive nostalgias. You learn to appreciate the sublime moments — those teeth marks in that apple — more than the characters possibly can themselves. So while the prose is plain and confident — ‘‘ In winter the cold silver river sliced through the valley’’ — Costello’s real firepower is structural, both in terms of the individual stories and the total book. These stories resonate profoundly together, whether through powerful parallels or upsetting contrasts.
Best of all, Costello is unafraid to risk melodrama for the opportunity to display characters at their most vulnerable and raw. The stories are so well built that they can support real calamities and even, in one case, an honest-to-god twist. The main character in And Who Will Pay Charon? learns at the end of the story that a bad thing once happened to a woman, an event he could have stopped. But for how long? ‘‘ Would a nod have saved her, altered her fate?’’ he wonders. ‘‘ Or does fate defy alteration and play out as originally intended, a little later perhaps, a little differently?’’
It’s a good question. Fate has a way of finding the characters in The China Factory, and it’s rarely merciful when it does.