‘Nothing up her sleeve’

the-china-factoryThe China Factory
Mary Costello

After reading Mary Costello’s debut story collection I hit the search engine desperate for more of her writing. I had previously read none of her fiction. While some reviewers have compared the subject matter and style of the stories contained in The China Factory to Alice Munro’s vast repository of familial and community drama, I was reminded more of Anne Enright’s approach to family life, brimming with domestic friction, love, lust and betrayal. (And in the case of Costello, at least, a sense of an aching tenderness that hovers over many of the stories.)

While discovering that she has written little more than is contained in the collection I came across a short but instructive interview with the writer, where she describes the writing process. She is unsurprisingly, like many writers, a bowerbird, picking up fragments observed and overheard that she then records in her notebook and ponders over. For Costello ‘the notebook is like a hoover that gathers up stray thoughts and ideas when I’m away from the desk.’

This is both an instructive insight into the writing practice and encouraging for aspiring young writers justifiably fed up with hearing the line ‘write what you know’ and/or ‘you need experience to write’. Together the two writing commandments create a depressing tautology. ‘You have little or no experience, therefore you know fuck-all and have nothing to write about’, or something like that. Costello’s practice highlights that a writer’s ability to observe experience, to document frames of a story being performed on the stage of daily life, will suffice quite well if (unfortunately) you weren’t raised by wolves in the forest.

I don’t know what experiences Mary Costello has had, but she sure can write. Her stories focus largely on the everyday and move between the home, the street and the factory, sites of both certainty and mundane predictability. Influenced, I would expect, by an innate sense of curiosity and a skill for conjuring a story from a fragmentary situation, Costello places us initially ‘on the fringe’ (a phrase she uses for gathering a story), and gradually move us to the centre of the narrative, at times against our will.

Several stories in The China Factory are presented quietly. They move with a gentle pace; fiction I sometimes refer to as ‘comfort reading’. Such stories in this collection include the title story, ‘The China Factory’, and the closing piece, ‘The Sewing Room’. By comfort I am not implying that they are stories absent of conflict or tension. In their delivery – the mood, pace and atmosphere of the writing – I am guided as to how to read the stories: slowly, quietly and with the confidence that I am being held by a writer with absolute command of the material. Other stories, such as ‘You Fill Up My Senses’ and ‘Sleeping With A Stranger’ surprised and threw me, as I speculated with some trepidation that the story was headed in a direction that it did not eventually take. Both stories were all the better for these shifts.

It is not easy to pick the top story in a collection so balanced in their collective achievement. It is also unnecessary. But as a lifetime creator of lists I can’t help myself here. Therefore ‘Things I See’ is not only my personal favourite in the book – it is one of the best stories I have read for some time. This is another domestic tale, focusing on a husband and wife, told through the observations, thoughts and reflections of the wife. Hers are the musings that many people go through during a long-term relationship; unease, complacency, emotional doubt and certainty fused uncomfortably together. The story is so well-crafted and delivered because the dramatic outcome does not unfold gradually. We do not ‘build to a climax’. The drama is momentary, fleeting, literally a shadow – and heartbreaking.

In one of his finest comments on writing, Raymond Carver cautioned us not to rely on ‘tricks’ to find our way out of the stories we write. We fail his advice when we don’t really know enough about what the story is doing, what it needs to be. For me, as a writer of short stories, and a reader who loves the form, Mary Costello’s The China Factory uses no tricks to get by. I suspect she has a big heart, a fine eye and a true writer’s insight into the human condition.


Tony Birch

Tony Birch is the author of Shadowboxing, Father’s Day, Blood, The Promise and Ghost River. He is currently research fellow in the Moondani Balluk Academic Centre at Victoria University.

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  1. How does the advice to ‘write what you know’ preclude writing about everyday observations? Knowledge is derived from infinite experiential and synthetic origins – most of which happen during regular daily life (or its equivalent). You can only write what you know, actually. Even if that knowledge is imagined, or inspired by the mundane, or is something somebody told you about once. That old piece of advice is still highly useful for forcing writing students to consciously begin to take stock of all that constitutes their knowledge and learn to find stories in unexpected knowledges! It’s one of the few really concrete ways to teach creativity – and something I’m writing a lot about at the moment.

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