Wednesday, 1 April 2015

What I Loved: The China Factory (Mary Costello)

Last Monday morning I suddenly had an opportunity to get away for a few solo days to write, read and walk along the beach. Leaving home felt, not momentous, but worthy of a small tribute and I chose 'Spring and Fall' by Paul Kelly to listen to. It's an album that tells a story, compiled like chapters that stand alone but played right through chart a cycle of falling in and out of love. I heard him play it live in London in 2013, sitting in a hall full of Australians listening to one of my favourite musical storytellers sing a new album in the first half of the show, and then so many of my life anthems to sing along to in the second.

He seemed like an ideal choice for the drive to the Mornington Peninsula where I planned to read Mary Costello's debut collection, 'The China Factory'. I think it was Paul McVeigh who recommended this to me, but there are plenty of enthusiastic reviews out there so I can't be sure where I heard about it. The cover lists comparisons to Thomas Hardy, John McGahern, William Trevor and Alice Munro - serious claims, that proved utterly warranted.

"This is a writer unafraid of the graveside, or the bedside, of filling the space of the story to the brim." (Anne Enright, Guardian)

I'm not someone who can recite passages from texts or remember character's names. Even favourite books I struggle to recall any details one or two books later, which is both a blessing and a problem. I'm certainly not someone for your trivia team. Fortunately when I look at the cover of a book I've read I can recall clearly how I felt about the book and have the luxury of re-reading books that I know upfront I'm going to enjoy.

I've resigned myself to this failing and so was surprised this morning when I looked at the table of contents in 'The China Factory' - I knew the stories. I knew details and emotions and remembered so many powerful endings. She reminded me of Anne Sexton, many of whose two or four line endings have been a benchmark for me for a long time. In Costello's title story the ending wasn't a twist or a shock or any sort of ploy that showed the writer's hand. But the phrasing, the idea and the expression of how the protagonist felt, was haunting. I was almost reluctant to read straight on but couldn't not.

And now, looking at the contents list I remember how I ached at the end of 'You Fill Up My Senses'. I remember sitting on a bar stool in the last shape of sunset, the loud conversation of almost-drunk tradesmen and their girlfriends barely registering as I read 'The Astral Plane', savouring the words and my one beer and looking out across the bay thinking about what I'd just read.
"She closed her eyes. She knew she could not be without him. She remembered his shoulder touching hers, his imploring eyes, and she felt herself again in his gaze - poised, silent, immaterial - and she knew she would die a thousand times at this memory, at this confluence of hearts. She leaned towards the screen and through it was not an endurance at all, this presence, this plane, and as the night came down and the rain fell on the city it came to her that what this was - this man, this moment - what this was, most of all, was the resurrection of hope."
I mean really, how fortunate I was to have a view of a day dying over water, a house with a reading chair by a window and a bottle of Coopers to go back to after that.

This is a collection that reinforces the power of short stories. At the end I felt as moved as if I'd read 12 novels - such a testament to how much can be conveyed in 20 pages at a time. In the right hands.

Just as the Paul Kelly album places me in Sloane Square, almost at the point where I'd make the big life-decision to return to Melbourne, the cover of 'The China Factory' will now set me in a couple of quiet days in Sorrento where I found a writer to add to my author-love list, and was even inspired to continue on my own writing quest.

What I Loved - work I have read and must share

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