Tourism in a treach­er­ous en­vi­ron­ment

The China Fac­tory

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ron­nie Scott Ron­nie Scott

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.

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