A mere twenty pages stand between me and the end of Mary Costello's The China Factory. I have quite enjoyed her writing and these Irish stories with their thread of melancholia that seems so pervasive in them. They are intense and sometimes very dark. I've not felt much joy or bliss in them to be honest. The characters struggle in their situations and their relationships. Particularly in their relationships. These are average people leading mostly ordinary average sorts of lives and while that can be heavy going (and I am glad I didn't try and gulp these down quickly), I can see bits and pieces of these emotions and struggles in my own life. I can't decide whether this makes me feel better or worse. Better to think that I am not alone in my own 'struggle', yet worse to think are there no really happy relationships? No one is happy all of the time, but I hope there are couples out there who are happy a good lot of the time, that the struggles and difficult moments are worth it in the end.
Once again I read two stories this weekend, "Little Disturbances" and "Room in Her Head", but I was drawn more to the first story than the latter one, so let me tell you about that one.
It's hard to face the end of your life when you feel moments of regret over the choices you have made. Not the people you have ended up with but the way you chose to live your life. How do you face not knowing whether you might have been happier had you taken some other risks. Would you have been happier, might your spouse been happier, your marriage stronger if you had left Ireland and maybe gone to America? That could be true of any of us, and I often think of those 'sliding door' moments myself. What if I had made some other choice, said no instead of yes, gone elsewhere. Would I be very different? Would I be happier? Would those around me have been happier? You could drive yourself crazy wondering these things.
In my eyes, this is one of the things that struck me so much when I read this story.
"He hears music when he wakes these mornings. The notes float up from below, pouring softly into the room, and for a moment he thinks it is Miriam, Miriam perched on the piano stool with her legs swinging and the purple-flowered wallpaper swirling around her and the notes spilling from her fingers."
One of the things I like about Costello's storytelling is how she lures you into her stories by, in this case, this seemingly insignificant memory. Miriam is the narrator's daughter. One of his children who has gone off to Canada to live and now fears flying and so doesn't return home often. We later learn that she had a disagreement with her parents. The narrator, the father, is much older and there is the strong hint he is not well, that perhaps he is facing some terrible illness. He tends to drift off into his memories and his wife is short with him. They don't seem especially happy together, but maybe they are settled and comfortable, and when you have built a life together how do you give it all up?
"Marie has gone from him little by little, year by year, and the going is almost complete. He has never been enough; she had wanted a fuller life, and a small bit of glamour. The years wore her down, the worry, the work."
And then he thinks:
"Something spills out of us, and it cannot be put back again."
And so the regrets and wondering. "He thinks of all the blindness he ever had". I guess in life there are more moments like this than the sort that soar. Those moments of release of feeling that cloud lifting, those rare moments of beauty and the sublime. But facing illness is a wake up call, if you will listen anyway, a chance to laugh and maybe forget just for a moment.
And so that is the beauty in Costello's storytelling. How she can take these moments of everyday life, important moments sometimes, and hold them up to the light, and sometimes you feel as though they are your own. And I suppose it is the mark of a good writer if she makes the reader just a little uncomfortable. She stirs things up inside a reader and leaves her just a little bit unsettled.
I do admit, however, after the next two stories, "Insomniac" and "The Sewing Room", I think I will leave Ireland behind for a while. I might pick up a collection of stories designed around a theme but consisting of the works of various writers. Or I might give a recent collection by Ali Smith a try. Actually, go read the blurb on Ali Smith's stories, it sounds quite promising and maybe a little lighter, too. Lightness is just as important in life and storytelling as heaviness and darkness.