Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

This week at Necessary Fiction, I review a début short story collection from the Irish writer, Mary Costello. I had the pleasure of first reading Costello in an issue of The Stinging Fly, an Irish literary journal, and have now come to really admire her work after reading this entire collection. The book is called The China Factory.

Here is a short except from my review:

Again and again Costello creates stories in which the human connections are both delicate and tender. Stretched thin and raw. Connections that contain an ache. Most of her characters are endowed with an almost painful empathy—attuned to the mysteries of their loved ones and bound to the intricate emotional structures of their own inner landscapes. In “The Patio Man,” a gardener is witness to his boss’s miscarriage and the event, clearly life changing for the woman, is as deeply afflicting for this quiet and watchful man. He is shaken to the core. While never neglecting the woman in the story, Costello actually explores the effects of this man’s empathy to a far greater degree.

I make it very clear in my review how much I enjoyed these stories but I can add a bit of personal anecdote here in this less formal reviewing place. I finished reading The China Factory in a local café, just across the street from my daughter’s daycare. My childcare schedule is somewhat inconvenient and so most Tuesdays and Thursdays, when she goes only for a few hours in the afternoon, I drop her off and head directly across the street to work, so as not to lose any time. In any case, I’m usually reading or writing or translating and I’ve gotten quite good at working in public (which is, I believe, an acquired skill).

Now, I am a seasoned reader. I read all kinds of beautiful and/or difficult literature and although I do engage with it deeply, I usually have no trouble reading anything in public. This was not the case with The China Factory. I re-read “Insomniac,” the second to last story and then blithely read on into “The Sewing Room.” By the time I realized what this quiet story was about, it was too late. I was sobbing. I put the book down, got myself under control and picked it up again. I told myself I could get through it. I took a quick peek around the café, which was about one-third full, and decided to go for it. Before I had turned that last page, the café owner had come over, put a kindly hand on my shoulder and asked me what on earth I was reading. She was visibly disappointed when she saw I was reading in English and wouldn’t get a chance to see for herself, but she quickly re-filled my teapot and hovered until it was clear that I wasn’t going to fall apart.

This all makes for a good story now, but the point I’m trying to make is that it is difficult to do this kind of poignancy nowadays. I admit that my being a relatively new mother made that last story particularly devastating for me—and the fact that it’s only through the support of my husband and family that I can continue working and be a Mom, something that wasn’t, or isn’t, available to many women around the world and so there were/are other, sometimes horrible, choices to be made—but Costello is so restrained in her depiction of these characters and their lives. There is no melodrama. She says it all in the simple handover of an apple from an 18-month-old child to its mother, and how that mother looks at this piece of fruit two days later, and my heart literally broke for these fictional people.

That particular story touched me quite personally and so remains my strongest memory of the collection. But the other stories were all as simple and profound. I cannot recommend this book more highly. Read the entire review here.

4 Responses to “Mary Costello – The China Factory”

  1. Stefanie

    This sounds like an intense reading experience. What a nice cafe owner to be concerned for you! I have yet to sob while reading in public but there are some days while reading on public transit that I have to fight back tears.

    • Michelle

      Having tears actually roll down my face while reading in public was a first for me – and I’m sure I would have got up and left if I had been anywhere else. But this is my “local” and they know me. I’m in there twice a week on my own and often with the whole family. We love this place. But yes, it was an intense reading experience. Often, that’s the best kind.

  2. Helen

    Michelle, your blog is a dangerous place! Another book I would never otherwise have come across, which I’m now keen to read.

    I’ve never actually wept in public although in the luxury of my own home I have cried over many books. My weepiness decreased as I got older – until, like you, I became a mother. Now I’m as ‘bad’ as I’ve ever been and I came pretty close to it the other week on the bus with De aanslag: again the bond between parents and children is written in a very restrained way but it makes it all the more powerful. But I’d rather books made me weep or laugh than not, I think. As you say, intense reading experiences are often the best kind.

    • Michelle

      Helen – I think you would really enjoy this collection. Intense reading. Beautiful stories. And you’ve reminded me to look for the De aanslag (in English of course!).

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