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Dissecting the deep lives of ordinary people

Author Mary Costello is fascinated by the complexity of human relationships and the divides that exist between people who share lives. This theme is explored in her latest short story collection Barcelona. The writing is beautiful and the content often hard-hitting because this modest woman doesn’t shy away from difficult topics as JUDY MURPHY learns.

“I come from one of the biggest meat-eating families in the West of Ireland,” says writer Mary Costello who has deviated bigtime from that path. A committed vegetarian for many years, the Menlough woman laughs and says, “I probably ate enough meat in my youth to keep me going”.

Mary’s new short story collection, Barcelona, which is being launched in Galway this Thursday, has been widely praised, with one critic describing her as James Joyce’s successor.

A huge fan of Joyce’s writing, she laughs and says “who wouldn’t take that comparison?”.

But she’s very much her own woman, with her own preoccupations, which are explored in this beautifully written, often gut-wrenching collection.

A recurring theme is the extraordinary divide that exists between people who share lives – be they couples or parents and children.

“How do we allow people who hurt us continue to live with us?”, she asks during her Tribune interview.

That’s something she explores in these stories and nowhere more than in The Choc-Ice Woman where the reader goes on an unusual journey with bereaved librarian, Frances.

As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that Frances’s husband, Frank, is not the man she had believed him to be and his behaviour has affected her life in profound ways.

“How does she continue to love him?” her creator asks.

But she does. At the conclusion of this story about death and redemption, Frances enters a different space and sees Frank differently.

“His human deceptions and human flaws are forgiven. She has put her finger on something bigger, maybe something metaphysical.”

It’s an example of how people “hold opposites like love and hate and how we mediate those opposites”.

Mary has been curious about human behaviour and relationships since childhood.

She moved to Dublin in her late teens, qualifying a teacher and starting to write fiction – one of her short stories from then was nominated for a Hennessey Award. But, as work took over and she got married, the writing faded away.

By the time she reached her mid-30s, however, Mary realised creative writing was fundamental to her wellbeing. After her marriage ended, she wrote and she taught. She also studied Jungian psychology, working as a counsellor in the school. Around 2010, she started sending her stories to publishers like The Stinging Fly, and nobody was more surprised than she was when her literary career took off.

“It’s 12 years since The China Factory was published,” she says, referring to her first collection which was nominated for a Guardian First Book award after being published by the Dublin company.

Pictured: Mary became a vegetarian after getting a dog. ‘Living in such close proximity with another animal, I couldn’t eat animals after that.’

For more, read this week’s Connacht Tribune:

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