Book report: The China Factory

I haven't blogged a book report in a long while, which should not be taken to mean that I haven't been reading. But I've been mostly rereading old favourites and literary journals. And I'm doing a lot more writing myself - committing to the act of it - and that means a certain amount of care must be taken when deciding what to pick up and devote oneself to.

But a signed copy of Mary Costello's short story collection The China Factory cut through all that, an impulse purchase from The Stinging Fly on a day when I was in a 'something new' mood — remarkable for me as new writers fill my bookshelves by way of slowly expanding orbits. Costello's book was also included on the longlist for the Guardian First Book Award and I was curious to see what got her there. I'm glad I was.

It was nice happenstance that I jumped from Maeve Brennan's stories to Costello's. Both peel back layers on the kinds of households I'm familiar with and grew up not seeing a lot of depth and interest in; banal kinds of Irish marriages contained in semi-detached and row houses. Or farmers with their land and coarse hands. And, more generally, the kinds of grown-ups who we all find so easy, especially when young, to see as lacking the complex inner world, and outer world, that we inhabit.

But the book is full of their secrets, their covert actions and knotted introspection. In those tightly wound inner worlds, small details become magnified, held up as tokens and talismans by those who bear them witness. And, perhaps most tragically, in all their secretiveness, there's an inability to communicate. Relationships that were once so close have fallen into a distant sort of everyday familiarity, not without love, but perhaps without understanding and connection.

All this I found moving and beautifully rendered in Costello's lovely cadence, one that is familiar and confiding. Two stories in particular took the wind from me immediately and others had a slower brew, creeping up on me in following days and in dreams too.

To praise something as an amazing "first" always pins it in a certain context, carries a sort of parental connotation that there's room to grow and improve. Mary Costello may well improve, as we all might. But The China Factory is an finely-wrought and moving collection of stories in any context.

Photograph of Mary Costello via The Stinging Fly
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