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In praise of Mary Costello, by Ethel Rohan

Celebrating Irish women writers: ‘Skilled, observant and empathetic, Mary Costello chronicles the specific and telling details of everyday lives in pivotal circumstances, and captures human yearning at its most instructive and affecting’

Mary Costello with her Eason Novel of the Year for Academy Street at last year’s Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Awards.Photograph: Aidan Crawley

Mary Costello’s heartfelt work elicits strong emotions, an interaction deepened for those fortunate enough to hear her read. Her quiet monotone invites listeners to lean in, straining to hear. The audience held, her compassionate storytelling works us over with relentless and formidable power.

From The Falling Sickness, the fifth story in Costello’s award-winning debut collection, The China Factory:

“The congregation stood and there was a rattle of chains, and a cloud of incense rose to the roof. The coffin was wheeled outside and they walked behind it down the hill to the graveyard. Was it Solomon’s chariot that was fashioned from cedar wood? Was it the cedars of Lebanon that wept? She pictured his house back in the city-bills on the table, dishes in the sink, his bike in the hall. She thought his death had imperiled her, too. She thought how its timing had hovered over him, hidden from him. How he had risen each morning for weeks, months, years, and moved through each day and lain down each night, but the countdown had begun – he was already hurtling toward this moment, as she was towards hers.”

Skilled, observant, and empathetic, Mary Costello chronicles the specific and telling details of everyday lives in pivotal circumstances, and captures human yearning at its most instructive and affecting, her characters often besieged by regret, often under constant threat.

Readers may feel similarly at risk, Costello’s stories and their poignant truths capable of eliciting a deep and visceral ache, in the most rewarding of ways. Most certainly, readers will feel similarly regretful when they reach the last page – sad the journey is over.

Other favourites: Edna O’Brien and Danielle McLaughlin.

Ethel Rohan has just completed her first novel. ethelrohan.com