Barcelona by Mary Costello review – potent snapshots of solitary confinement

<span>‘Constantly manipulating the surface tension’: Mary Costello.</span><span>Photograph: Yamila</span>
‘Constantly manipulating the surface tension’: Mary Costello.Photograph: Yamila

What can you do inside a short story? Of the many engagements with other writers in Mary Costello’s collection, one ambition appears to guide her particularly; that of the narrator in a Jorge Luis Borges story who glimpses the Aleph, the point in space that contains everything, in Costello’s rendering, “the tiny sphere that encloses the whole universe, that makes visible every point and every place and every act from every angle, and in every light”. In her second book of short stories – The China Factory appeared more than a decade ago, and there have been two impressive novels since – the Galway-born writer plays with the lights and angles to ingenious effect, constantly manipulating the surface tension. That all-seeing clarity is impossible does not make the attempt worthless.

Her characters – men and women, past and present, captured in the first person or by an unknown outside voice – are frequently in transit and frequently confined. They are trapped in an auditorium, or on the Eurostar, in cars or on trips with another person whose reality they cannot share. In My Little Pyromaniac, a story with touches of the uncanny, a woman finds herself living next door to a former lover, confronted by the life she might have had and compelled, eventually, to scale his garden fence to perform an act that hovers somewhere between rescue and sabotage. It is the idea that their proximity might be shrouded in silence – they never speak to or otherwise acknowledge one another – and still generate intense emotion and near violence that is powerful; a continuation of their relationship by unspoken and yet irresistible means.

Characters find themselves in varieties of tormented indecision, often gripped by an appalled and appalling compassion

Elsewhere, characters find themselves in varieties of tormented indecision, often gripped by an appalled and appalling compassion. In several stories, its source is the treatment and slaughter of animals for human purposes, most notably in At the Gate, in which a woman travels to a literary festival with her husband to hear JM Coetzee speak. Costello herself cites Coetzee as a favourite writer and he, in turn, has praised her work; in the story, her character (also named Costello and struck by the fact that one of Coetzee’s protagonists is Elizabeth Costello) is floored both by the spectacle of the writer made flesh and by her inability to convey the significance of his words to her furiously impatient companion. She suffers a mental crisis, a return of “the old illness”, which manifests itself in visions of animals waiting to be put to death; what others might see as an excess of empathy, but which is also, viewed from another perspective, a simple reckoning with reality.

None of these pieces make for comfortable reading; Costello’s writing is insistent, precise and unsparing. Everyday acts and ordinary lives are infused with a sense of the skull beneath the skin and of a catastrophe held tautly at bay. In the collection’s longest story, and perhaps its most skilful and affecting, The Choc-Ice Woman, the catastrophe has come to pass and we are witness to its painful absorption.

Frances is accompanying her brother’s body from a Dublin hospital to the family’s farm in Kerry, where she now lives with her husband, Frank. In between snippets of conversation with the undertaker – including a brief interlude of dark comedy when he worries that he has collected the wrong body – she probes the mysteries of the significant figures in her life: her twin brothers, one hearty and active, one a semi-recluse, both now dead; Frank, in whom childhood abuse has fostered a deep peaceability that conceals a secret life; the writer Robert Musil, whose stories of “sickness and death and what the young men thought of as love” have insinuated themselves into her way of understanding the world.

The question of whether her stoicism has mutated into a self-destructive implacability echoes through the story’s slow accumulation of sentences, until it appears to her – or at least, to the reader – that her energies have been drained by her efforts to bring others into focus. The story’s closing lines, as the hearse rolls into an empty yard and Frank appears, are subtle, ambiguous, and sinuous: “For a moment, all was darkness. Then a light came on and a door opened. And from around the side of the building, Frank’s outline appeared. As he approached, he seemed not to get any closer. She squinted in the twilight. Any moment now, she thought, I will be able to make out his face.”

• Barcelona by Mary Costello is published by Canongate (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply