The Irish Stories of Mary Costello

Running a reading group has been a revelation for me.  The pressure of finding a new short story every week has taken me into areas of literature I wouldn't normally have ventured. And, without the recommendation of a friend, I wouldn't have found the wonderful Irish writer, Mary Costello. Elizabeth Stott, who writes short stories herself, recommended a collection called The China Factory, published by a small Dublin publishing house, Stinging Fly Press.  It came with a blindingly good endorsement from Anne Enright in The Guardian comparing the author to Alice Munro and talking about 'the accumulation of tiny pleasures', 'a satisfying and accomplished debut', and perhaps most perceptively, 'There is a kind of immaculate suburban sadness in many of these tales'.

Because this is the Ireland of the Celtic Tiger, and the characters, still rooted in an older culture, are still inhibited by old customs and moralities, unsure of their identities, like battery chickens stepping out of the open cage for the first time. The events of the stories are the stuff of ordinary lives - a girl about to leave for college, taking a summer job in a china factory; the death of a child that breaks a marriage; a man in an unfulfilled relationship who builds a fantasy around a woman he once met; a girl who gives up her child for adoption.

This is Irish writing - easy dialogue that always says more than the words on the page, prose rich with images, every sentence poised musically against the others.  It has left me wanting to read more work by this writer  (she has a debut novel, Academy Street) and also asking the question, what is it about the Irish that makes them so good with words?

In an interview  for the Irish Arts Council, Mary Costello talks about writing the stories that make up this collection. She speaks with a characteristic humility.

"The greatest challenge with writing in general was - and is - self-doubt. For years I doubted that I had anything worth saying or any story worth telling, and even if I did, who would want to read it! I think this is a common enough anxiety in writers. And when you think about it, it’s not surprising, because it is absurd to think that anyone would want to read the stuff that rattles around inside our heads. Who do we think we are anyway? And what a cheek to expect complete strangers to invest time and money in reading our random imaginings. And yet we do it. Something in us needs to be heard . ."

She works hard and I was interested to find that she thinks 'voice' and 'tone' are the most important elements in a short story.

"The first draft is tough. Finding the right voice and tone is crucial. You have to be patient. You have an image of how the story should be, how the voice should sound, but of course the effort to execute these falls way short. So you keep at it and maybe something starts to show itself. Occasionally, you’re lucky and you hit on the voice early on, and things are a small bit easier then."

Mary admits that her primary influences are Alice Munro and J.M. Coetzee.  Her advice to new authors was once given to her:  "Write with your heart and don’t be afraid to bleed."


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