I have all Mary Costello’s books but up until now I hadn’t read any of her work. If the quality of the writing in The China Factory is anything to go by, I am in for a treat with her novels.
This is a stunning and affecting collection of twelve perfectly crafted stories, all exploring the lives of the lost and the lonely. With a quiet skill, Costello insightfully illuminates these quiet lives that have been thrown off course by circumstance, loss or betrayal.
Life-changing things happen in these stories – people die and get ill, they fall out of love, they lose children both willfully and by accident and most of all they bear witness to the loss of love.
Loneliness, particularly within relationships is one of the main themes. In Things I See, a new mother discovers that her husband has slept with her sister yet feels unable to leave the relationship. Romy, in Room in Her Head feels the same sense of immobility when she discovers her husband has had a son with another woman. Unspoken secrets loom large in Costello’s worlds yet even when the secrets are confessed, as one is in Insomniac it brings little comfort for either party.
In the masterful Little Disturbances, a man who is waiting on test results thinks back over his relationship with his wife and wishes things could have been different for them.
He wishes he had done something for her, some gesture, one big thing. Built her a house, maybe. Or planted an orchard. Or said something, one glorious thing – that her eyes remind him of a wolf’s and he loves wolves because they are wild and lonesome, or that he is afraid for her all the time now, and himself too, and he cannot bear it when she leaves his side.
Loneliness, as experienced by Costello’s characters is almost cherished, often as a means to assuage guilt for a sexual betrayal.
In The Astral Plane an Irish woman starts an email correspondence with an American man, which soon develops into something deeper. This affair of the mind consumes her, gives her something to keep going for, so that when they finally meet, reality is hard to accept. Sleeping With a Stranger is the affecting story of a retired school inspector who remembers a one-night affair years before, a night which has sustained him throughout his life. Meanwhile, in the beautifully structured Who Will Pay Charon? a retired Classics teacher adores his single life, until news of a woman he once spurned throws his considered solitude into sharp relief.
I see possibilities everywhere – I see the thin veil that separates us from disaster. I see it shimmering above bodies of water, and loose slates; I see it in lightening flashes and speeding motorbikes; even in the rafters of my own attic, I see it lifting. And what good is Homer now? And where have all the gods gone – will Zeus climb down and help me?
Where children are often the glue holding these fractured and fragile relationships together, the loss of a child brings its own particular type of loneliness. The thoughtful gardener in The Patio Man who has to take his client to hospital when she suffer a miscarriage, realises the catastrophic nature of what is happening to her, musing that ‘she will be stricken, no longer intact…she might not trust the ground anymore’. A woman who goes to the funeral of her first husband in This Falling Sickness knows that his death is the end of something bigger, as she thinks of their son, knocked down and killed years before – ‘the coffin was lowered into the grave...her only link to the child was going too’.
The stand out story of the collection is The Sewing Room, a heartbreaking portrait of a woman who, on the brink of retirement, is too aware that her entire life stalled on the day as an unmarried teenage mother, she had to give up her child for adoption.
She searches for a word but there is none capable of containing what she feels. She narrows her eyes and a procession of words crosses her mind, like ticker tape, and then she feels it approach, the only word that is ample: it rises out in a voice she has never heard in these rooms, an exhalation, a cry, John.
Costello writes with a real sympathy and honesty, exploring the human experience as it is lived from day-to-day where disappointments and sorrows lurk under the surface of all families and all relationships. Beautifully structured, these stories benefit from the fact that she comes at her narratives from interesting angles, exploring aftermaths and memory rather than the pivotal moments themselves.
Despite the stories focusing on life-changing moments of loss and sadness, Costello eschews extremes, preferring to see the multitude of emotions contained in the ordinary – she is an extremely realist writer, teasing out the essence of what it means to be human when life still has to continue to be lived and grief must be carried in whatever way possible.
Costello’s prose throughout is beautifully measured and carefully considered. Small details add a density and depth to these stories, equal to what you would find in any novel and this collection contains some really beautiful passages.
He turned to where his mother’s slippers sat on the floor. The sight of them, their patient waiting, moved him. He bent down and took them on his lap and put a hand in each one.
With such care for her characters and the modesty and beauty of her prose, Costello has created a vivid portrait of lonely people, trying to make the best of the unexpected and changing lives they find themselves inhabiting. Her characters are distinct, yet recognisable and universal.
READ ON: BOOK
NUMBER READ: 321
NUMBER REMAINING: 425
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!