The China Factory by Mary Costello: Book Review

Tiny frissons of recognition hit you at unexpected moments as you dip into the lives of Mary Costello’s ordinary men and women.

The twelve short stories woven together in The China Factory have a deeply personal feel, as though the author has spent some time exploring the slow ‘going’ of lives and relationships.

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Mothers and fathers and siblings come under Costello’s unwavering gaze but its husbands and wives that sit most starkly in the light her telescopic lens.  In ‘Things I See’ we feel a husband’s slow distancing, the threads of a relationship that become something less because “with every new night and every new wind I know that I am cornered too, and I will remain, because I cannot unlove him” (56).

In the title story, the casual convenience of a tentative friendship between a young girl and an older man – workmates, distant relatives and driving companions – forms the backdrop to a coming of age story that focuses on duty and the burden of loyalty.

The narrator and Gus (a behemoth of a man) both worked in a China factory so, later, the things that become Gus-reminders seem at once both obvious and subtle.

“The sight of a bible in a hotel room now, or a drunk in a doorway, or my mother setting down her china cups, or even King Kong, all call Gus to mind.” (20)

It is a tale about moving on – geographically and personally – and what and who we leave behind, why they are left behind, and what we take of them with us.

“I would like to have mitigated the loss and the guilt I felt at leaving them behind, the feeling that I was escaping and walking away.  It is not an easy walk, I longed to tell them, but I’m not sure anyone was listening.”(21)

‘This Falling Sickness’ is my favourite story from the collection.  While its subject matter of death – not one, but two  – is a harrowing one, Costello’s understated method bites.

Upon hearing of her ex-husbands death,  Ruth “stared at the floor and felt herself folding” (72).  As Ruth copes with this death, she relives the more harrowing one in the distant past, the deaths connected by blood.

Costello effortlessly segues between the two deaths and captures grief so perfectly;  the detailed pictures of ‘before’ and the snapshots that collect around the fuzziness in the ‘after’ when  Ruth sees her mother’s shoes sinking into the clay, hears her sister’s voice crack as she reads a poem at the graveside and the roar of the traffic beyond the walls of the cemetery.

A husband’s adultery closes out the grief, a liaison that Ruth choses to see as “not unforgivable” because, she decided “it was easier to be the one hurt, than the hurter” (85).

‘This Falling Sickness’ brought me, as the saying goes, undone.

Light creeps into the shadows behind everyday façades as Costello quietly shocks with deft pauses and the great unsaid.  Beautiful.

My thanks to Lisa Hill at ANZ LitLovers for the opportunity to read Mary Costello’s first book of stories.  This review is cross-posted there.

BOOK DETAIL
Costello, Mary. The China Factory, The Text Publishing Company, Melbourne, 2012.
ISBN 9-781922-147417

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