Two of my favourite discoveries in the last couple of years have been Claire-Louise Bennett’s Pond, and Mary Costello’s The China Factory. Both collections were first published in Ireland by The Stinging Fly, and have since found publication in the UK and US, along with serious critical recognition.
While stylistically quite different, both writers evoke what might be described as circumscribed – even small – lives with powerful intimacy. Both place their trust in sustained acts of attention that allow them to break through the surface of things, ascribing remarkable depth and texture to their characters and to the world around them.
Costello’s debut, The China Factory, took my breath away with its combination of intense sensory awareness and appraising intelligence. There is a startling intimacy to this writing, and an attention to detail that makes reading any story of Costello’s a consuming experience. She is unafraid of slowing things down, taking her time and sustaining a note as she works towards endings that are always powerful, and often devastating. Costello’s characters lead lives shaped and charged by body, mind and emotions: we see this in the depth of a young girl’s love for her mother, the almost unbearably acute awareness a woman has of her unfaithful husband’s body in their shared domestic space, and in the deep understanding a gardener shows when he helps his employer, who is miscarrying, to hospital. The hypersensitivity of many of Costello’s narrators and characters – blending humanity and empathy with a sometimes painful consciousness of the world and of other people – makes her writing tremendously moving.
Costello’s writing is marked by an elegantly unadorned simplicity – making the shock of her revelations, when they come, all the more forceful and disconcerting. By contrast, in Claire-Louise Bennett’s Pond (recently published by Fitzcarraldo in the UK), the narrator – an unnamed woman who lives alone in a cottage – addresses the reader in an enjoyably, and purposefully, circuitous and loquacious manner … a form of direct address laced with an energetic relish and humour (in this respect reminding me of one of my first literary loves: Gogol’s short story ‘The Overcoat’). Bennett’s sense of humour is paired in her narrator with a curious intelligence that is constantly at work, probing the nature and boundaries of any given space or situation, and communicating a fierce indignation at the way the world is so often diminished through facile labels and limited or cosy thinking. Dissatisfaction is expressed at what must always feel like language’s approximations. English, Bennett’s narrator suggests, is not her ‘first language’: ‘I don’t think my first language can be written down at all. I’m not sure it can be made external you see. I think it has to stay where it is; simmering in the elastic gloom betwixt my flickering organs.’ In the piece ‘The Big Day’, the narrator expresses fury at the placement of a sign saying ‘Pond’ beside a pond: a sign that for her blocks the magic of things, taking its place among ‘an idiotic overlay of literal designations and inane alerts’. Meanwhile, the perambulations of her own use of language work to inject back into the world the ‘savage swarming magic’ that she feels. Bennett, like Costello, writes body and mind.
K J Orr’s debut collection – Light Box – is published by Daunt Books.