Where Have you Been by Joseph O’Connor and
The China Factor by Mary Costello
By Sue Leonard.
Published in Books Ireland. December 2012.
THINGS NOT SAID
Short stories have been enjoying a renaissance of late. So much so, that collections from our foremost authors equal the number of novels on the shortlist of this year’s Best Novel category, at the Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Awards. Joseph O’Connor joins Emma Donaghue and Kevin Barry, and all three have produced collections of an extraordinary calibre.
O’Connor’s stories exploring Ireland’s boom and recession, are large in scale and range, and are muscular and compelling. All life – and death is here. There’s cancer; depression; the death of a child; the dissecting of a miserable childhood, and the demise of many a marriage.
Dublin, in all its gore and glory is quite wonderfully evoked. In ‘A Little Cloud,’ in response to Joyce’s ‘Two Clouds,’ we trawl the trendy boom time bars along with the narrator, home from London for a weekend, and an acquaintance of old, Eddie Virago, who, now a property developer, says he’s separated and carefree. The twist comes as a bolt from the blue.
After a brief foray to nineteenth century New York, and eighties London, we’re back in Dublin with a story set in 2004. The boom, seen through Senan’s eyes, is a miserable dark place. I liked this remainder that, for many, it was a time of unease.
In the recession, though, they fare even worse. Male protagonists shamble through their lives, mired in misery. Fathers loom large, but children are rarely mentioned, and mothers are absent. They’ve either died, or are caught up in the hell of alcoholism or mental illness.
That’s not to say the stories lack humour; the dialogue fizzes with it; but the author is at his best when it’s the things not said that grab centre stage. In Death of a Civil Servant, this is exemplified beautifully.
‘Men of my father’s age are uncomfortable saying what they feel. They’re unaccustomed to being asked, lack the language to answer. It doesn’t mean that they’re insensible, only that they’re lost, with the inarticulacy of babies wanting to howl because they can do nothing else.’
If I admired the seven, substantial stories, and how could I not, when the language shines, and the landscape comes so wonderfully to life, I simply adored the novella that comes afterwards. At just over 100 pages, Where Have You Been tells of Cian Hanahoe, a banker who has suffered a nervous breakdown.
Back at work, he meets Catherine, a film production designer from London, who is filming in Wicklow. Their relationship ebbs and flows over a summer, but neither seem quite able to commit. She is taking a break from a long term lover, and he still carries the hurt from his broken marriage.
The relationship develops during the couples’ rambles through Wicklow. (I live in the County, and am keen to try the several walks, and many sights O’Connor describes, that have until now have eluded me.)
O’Connor peels away the layers of character with consummate ease. We realise, soon, that Cian is sensitive, and has a love for the arts and a spellbinding way with words, but we’re halfway through the novella before we realise quite how attractive he is to women.
The beautiful Catherine, so cool and confident at the start, has her own demons. But she’s better at hiding them than her beau. She covers over her insecurities with self deprecating humour until they are leaked, gradually, as the novella progresses.
Cian’s father – another victim of an unhappy marriage – has a small, but important walk on role. His voice adds humour, and poignancy. He brings a glimpse of the Ireland of Liveline, and Joe Duffy. He tapes the programme when he’s out.
I empathised so strongly with Cian; and was so engaged in the progress of his love affair, and his general state of mind, that I found myself in tears, before the satisfying ending arrived.
This tender novella reminded me of my favourite of O’Connor’s novels – his fourth, Inishowen, which is also a love story between two damaged people. It shares the prominence of landscape and the humour, that’s always there, under the surface, waiting to bubble through.
One of my daughters once worked in a factory making tin foil trays. She was nineteen, and needed cash for the start of the university year. She’d come home each night, exhausted, with cut fingers, and a headache from the fumes. None of her siblings would have lasted long in such a job, but she stuck at it, doggedly, until, by a cruel twist of fate she was fired, after a mass walkout.
I do remember, though, how hard it was for her, fitting in with workmates who had no better prospects. I remember her discomfiture, and, almost, a sense of guilt. And all this came flooding back to me, when I read The China Factory – the title story in Dublin woman Mary Costello’s debut collection.
The guilt was even worse for Costello’s protagonist. Taken on as bone fide employee, she was promoted ahead of her peers, and she agonised, at the knowledge that she’d be ‘escaping,’ to teacher training college.
This wonderful story centres on Gus, the quiet oddball who drives the young protagonist to and from work. That he’s sensitive, is clear from the start. The surprise is that he’s a hero, averting a potential crisis, and loss of life.
I was hugely impressed with this story, and was astonished when each subsequent offering proved just as accomplished, if not more so. These twelve stories, written over the past fifteen years are perfect gems. They call to mind Alice Munroe, because they explore ordinary lives, yet often encompass life’s extremes.
Costello looks at adoption; at the death of a child; at cancer; and at betrayal. She deals with all these subjects with such intricate delicacy. Her characters tend to suffer silently, as if they’re too frightened to meet life head on.
The writer is at ease writing from a male point of view, and from a child’s. There’s huge poignancy in you Fill Up my Senses, showing how a young child takes on her mother’s unhappiness. Its set on a farm, and Costello shows herself superb at exploring the cruelties that are a reality in that environment.
The author has a delightful ease with language. There are many lines here to linger over and cherish. In ‘Things I see,’ the narrator fears for the future of her marriage.
‘It is not the fact of growing old, but of growing different.’
The stories portray a bleak view of marriage. There’s a sense of love leaking over time. There’s a lack of communication between the couples portrayed; and of secrets held onto. The betrayed tend to hang on to love. In This Falling Sickness, Ruth’s first husband has died. He’d been unfaithful, but it becomes clear that her second marriage cannot hope to match that first one.
All these stories are worthy of being re-read time and again. They make you pause, reflect and admire. But my favourite, The Astral Plane is simply sublime. The protagonist, happily enough married, gets an email one day from an American saying he picked up a book of hers at a reading in Dublin. The literary correspondence soon means more to both of them, than their real lives with their partners.
What starts as a delightful email exchange, becomes a morality tale for our times. This story shows how destructive a relationship fostered on social media can be. And it’s told with a real understanding for the plight of all the characters.
As a bonus, it got me rushing to my bookshelves, to extract my copy of the book that started the correspondence. Gerard Donovan’s Julius Winsome gets a rave review from them both. This quiet collection has been feted too. It has been both shortlisted for best Newcomer at the Irish Book Awards, and long listed for the Guardian First Book Award. It deserves to win both.
© Sue Leonard. 2012.