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Review: The China Factory by Mary Costello

An elderly schoolteacher recalls the single act of youthful passion that changed her life forever; a young gardener has an unsettling encounter with a suburban housewife; a wife who miscalculated the guarantees of marriage embarks upon an online affair. And in the title story a teenage girl who works in a china factory strikes up an unlikely friendship with a lonely bachelor.

In the 12 haunting stories here, Mary Costello examines everyday life and relationships. A teacher from Galway, Costello has been writing for some time -- she was shortlisted for a Hennessy award 15 years ago -- but this is her first collection to be published. It is attracting much attention and deservedly so.

These stories take a walk on the dark side and are set in the west of Ireland against farming backgrounds or in Dublin amongst trapped suburbanites, many stories involving teachers. Mostly the characters are stuck with the consequences of their emotional wrong turnings.

I know that I am cornered too, and I will remain, because I cannot unlove him is the devastating last line of Things I See, a story about the emotional self-entrapment of the over- loyal.

Characters invariably seek solace or inspiration by looking out windows. As in The Astral Plane a woman on holiday with her husband in Clare -- She got up and went to the window. Soon the moon would rise. There were rose bushes and fuchsias in the borders. There was no tree for miles around. Sometimes on their drives they came upon a lone bush on the roadside and she was stirred by its stark beauty, its forlornness.

Or the married male teacher in Sleeping with a Stranger, not connected much with his wife but who, when visiting his mother, recalls a one-night stand in a Dublin hotel with a younger woman after a teacher's conference in Maynooth -- He did not know his way out of the city. He stopped and sat in a café under harsh lights and stared at his reflection in the plate-glass window.

In The Insomniac, a man with a wife and two children asleep, leaves his quiet home and prowls the city at night, coming close to danger. Solitary people stranded after emotional wrong turnings and trapped mainly in middle-class housing estates. Raymond Carver and Edward Hopper hover over these stories.

The collection is slightly let down by the title story which starts promisingly but is then resolved by a clumsy deus ex machina in which a mentally deranged character enters from nowhere spouting a gibberish which ends with a few phrases from 'Ballerina' a song on Van Morrison's Astral Weeks. The nondescript cover also doesn't help.

These blemishes don't derail the collection and though there are some other stories that try to pack in too much, there is, however, one perfect piece; where pace, character, restraint, emotion all exquisitely combine -- This Falling Sickness.

Again a story about coming to terms with delayed bereavement, in this instance two bereavements, a child and a husband; both accidental and both happening at a distance from the subject of the story, Ruth. And about her not being able to intervene to prevent these falling accidents. This story is simply a masterpiece.

This is a powerful collection from a very fine unshowy writer.

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