So, after much deliberation and consideration, I've decided to give the stories of Mary Costello a try. I have heard good things about her from trusted sources and after reading the first two stories this weekend think this will be a perfect fit. Maybe this is my year to read lots of Irish Literature as Costello grew up in County Galway and now lives in Dublin. I plan on reading her first novel, Academy Street, at some point. It won the Irish Book of the Year Award and was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award. The story collection I am now reading, The China Factory, was nominated for the Guardian First Book Award. So, as you see the accolades for her writing abound.
As this collection, with just a dozen stories, is just over 150 pages, so I am hoping to make quick progress. Most stories are only around ten pages, but in the hands of someone as talented as Costello seems to be, ten pages is a pretty wide canvas on which to paint quite a good story.
The collection opens with the titular story, "The China Factory". This is in its own way a coming-of-age story. Certainly by the story's end there is a feeling that the character has made a number of self-revelatory observations about her youthful behavior.
"The summer I turned seventeen I worked as a sponger in a china factory. I walked to the end of our road every morning to catch my lift to the city with Gus Meehan, and every evening I came home with a film of fine dust lodged in the pores of my skin. From the back seat I had a view of Gus's broad shoulders and the china clay caked in the creases of his neck and in his grey hair. The air inside the car smelled of cigarette ash and stale masculine sweat."
Gus is shy and deferential with a bit of a stammer and by almost anyone's standards is something of a misfit. But he is a gentle soul and I think the unnamed narrator recognizes this but is just too young an inexperienced to appreciate such accomplishments. She's not cruel but she's not got the self-confidence yet either to stand behind her beliefs rather than fall in line with the poor regard of her young coworkers.
I think Gus holds a certain fascination and attraction for her. She watches and notices from a distance, but being young she is still trying to find her way in the world. She manages to get a prize position applying gold leaf to the china plates, a position coveted by her coworkers, which of course does nothing to endear herself to them. Maybe for this reason that the girls now resent her, and the fact that all along she had planned to leave at the end of the summer for university that she so blithely 'throws Gus under the wheels' so to speak when the other girls make fun of him. She tells her story looking back from her new life, wishing she might have been able to take them all with her into her new world.
"You Fill Up My Senses" is the story of a mother's life as observed through the eyes of her young daughter. Once again Costello's young narrator is a keen observer who only over time sees the real world of a woman she thinks of as someone "who understands everything about her". Her mother may understand this child, but it will take the narrator time to fully understand the life of her mother. Her mother's mother died when she was young, so she grew up motherless. And sometimes the narrator fears the same will happen to her. It's always interesting seeing the adult world through the eyes of a child. They make interesting and often accurate observations but often misunderstand the nuances of what they see.
As the wife of a farmer and the mother of several children there is never any rest, no matter how weary she may be. Even when the farmer's/her father's day comes to an end, her mother is still has the family's chores. What will it take to have her mother forget the five children and the arguments and the never ending work.
"She gazes at their faces in the honeymoon photograph. They do not know what is ahead of them. If they knew what was ahead of them they might have left the lakes of Killarney."
The book blurb says that Costello "examines the passions and perils of everyday life with startling insight, casting a light into the darkest corners of the human heart."
Next weekend definitely "Things I See" and hopefully, too, "The Patio Man".