Barcelona by Mary Costello: A curate’s egg

Cover image for Barcelona by Mary CostelloI was surprised and delighted when a proof of Mary Costello’s new short story collection popped through my letter box. I’d had no inkling that there was a new one on the horizon from her. Academy Street, her 2014 novella, is one of my favourite books, epitomising the spare, quietly understated style I so admire. Barcelona comprises nine stories of which I’ve picked five favourites.

Travel makes of home a wound that accompanies him everywhere.

The collection opens with the titular Barcelona setting the tone for much of the rest of the collection with its story of a young woman, faced with the gulf that divides her from her husband while celebrating their fourth wedding anniversary. Deus Absconditus sees a father travel to Paris to meet the scientist son he rarely sees, brought up short by a memory of his childhood cruelty. In Assignation, the housemaid to a wealthy American family has agreed to meet a young man on her afternoon off but cannot forget the secret she left behind in Ireland, believing it has ruined hopes of future happiness. The Hitchhiker sees a woman pressing her partner about the name he called out in his sleep, regretting it the following day, while in Groovejet, a short affair with an older woman haunts a man who learnt little or nothing about her before she disappeared.

The more stories of home she tells the child, the further that life removes itself from her and becomes someone else’s.  

Many of the characters in Costello’s stories find themselves facing revelatory moments of crisis: disappointments are brought into stark relief; distance opens up in relationships – sometimes away from home, often in unaccustomed proximity; misunderstandings, incompatibilities and an awareness that habits and views are set and will not change come into sharp focus. Several characters are troubled by animal cruelty – both the main protagonists of At the Gate and The Killing Line carry a burden of guilt from their family’s farming practices. More squeamish readers, like me, might find themselves skipping bits of The Killing Line with its graphic description of abattoirs. Costello’s writing is as satisfyingly accomplished as ever but while I enjoyed most of the stories in her collection I wasn’t as thrilled as I’d expected to be by it. Cathy has also reviewed it here.

Canongate Books: Edinburgh 9781805301837 192 pages Hardback

19 thoughts on “Barcelona by Mary Costello: A curate’s egg”

  1. I’m shallow enough to be drawn in by a title, and this has been on my radar since I first saw it mentioned in despatches. Despite your curate’s eggish assessment I’ll still aim to give it a go.

        1. I have had Academy Street recommended to me by other readers and bought a copy for my Kindle ages ago, but never got around to reading it. These stories sound good generally, but the abattoir one rather puts me off.

  2. I’d gathered from Cathy’s review that I’d need to skip bits of The Killing Line! I also really loved Academy Street so it’s good to have my expectations moderated somewhat. It still sounds like there’s a lot to enjoy here.

  3. Sounds an interesting collection, though like you the animal cruelty bits are going to be hard for me. I have read a book with a fairly graphic description of an abattoir, and though it was sensitively handled, it wasn’t the easiest to handle even on a skim through.

  4. Definitely adding this to my TBR. I always wonder, are those who are troubled by reading abattoir scenes just as troubled when they’re shopping in the “meat” aisle of the supermarket, or does it only bother them in fiction?

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