Against the backdrop of war, a group of children barricade themselves in an abandoned townhouse, cherishing what’s left of their innocence with the help of a dressing-up box…
An ageing widower moves into the shed at the end of his garden to plan out his ‘endgame’ surrounded by a lifetime’s worth of hoarded curiosities…
The characters in David Constantine’s fifth collection are all in pursuit of sanctuary; the violence and mendacity of the outside world presses in from all sides – be it the ritualised brutality suffered by children at a Catholic orphanage, or the harrowing videos shared among refugees of an atrocity ‘back home’. In each case, the characters withdraw into themselves, sometimes abandoning language altogether, until something breaks and they can retreat no further.
I don’t quite know how I have never managed to come across David Constantine’s work before, but, it has to be said, my failing quite pleases me, because I now have his entire ‘back catalogue’ to look forward to. I love a good short story collection, and I love being introduced to writers I haven’t read before, so I was delighted to receive an ARC of this book ahead of its paperback publication date. Many thanks to Zoe at Comma Press for my copy. The review below is my honest, unbiased opinion.
The sixteen stories in this collection are powerful, both individually and when taken as a whole. Constantine is a remarkable writer, able to blend personal, intimate moments with wider political implications, zooming in and out of the human experience in a seamless manner. There were two or three stories which didn’t grab me as strongly, but I suspect this is at least partly because Constantine’s work requires quite intense concentration; it seems to me to be the kind of book that would reward careful reading and rereading. Having said that, when I tried to pick out a couple of favourite stories, I ended up choosing half of them!
The opening story, ‘The Dressing-Up Box’, is stunning. The premise of a group of children forming their own mini society has, of course, been done before, but what struck me here was the trust placed in the children by the author – there is no Lord of the Flies anarchy here; instead, acceptance and empathy govern the children’s actions. When the newcomer, Monkey, discovers the treasure trove of dressing-up clothes beneath the floorboards, the delight and excitement is palpable. The way in which the children are able, even in these extreme circumstances, to let their imaginations run riot, and not to lose that sense of wonder, is beautifully depicted. As a first introduction to Constantine’s writing, it blew me away, and reminded me of the power of the short story form.
As I mentioned, there were several other stories that really stood out for me. ‘Siding with the Weeds,’ in which Joe visits his old friend Bert, who is now more or less living in a shed at the end of his garden, is such a subtly surprising story, full of gorgeous nuggets of prose – when Bert reveals the full version of the ‘beautiful clean thought’ he had started to write down, I honestly felt something break in my chest. Constantine’s writing contains many of these moments, heartbreaking in their truth and beauty. In ‘The Diver’, Lucy accompanies her father on one of his expeditions, and the events that unfold perfectly encapsulate those moments of near-trauma that can mark us almost as much as the real thing.
Constantine’s work is also timely. In ‘Rivers of Blood’, two elderly people reflect on their experiences of the demonstrations resulting from Powell’s infamous speech, and in ‘Seeking Refuge,’ Fahrid struggles to move on from what is happening back in the country he fled. In ‘bREcCiA’, the strange book made up of collages of images and texts, which so captivates the protagonist, seems to encompass the entire modern world in its pages, showing the true scope of Constantine’s concerns.
‘When I Was a Child’ is perhaps the most emotionally powerful piece in the collection, describing the covert horrors of life in the House of the Brothers and Sisters of Mercy, an orphanage. What happens with White Star is chilling – I shall say no more here, but Father Dominic is a dark, dark villain. Even in this bleak story, though, there is a hint of hope at the end. This is brought to the fore in the final story in the collection, ‘Ashton and Elaine,’ a deeply moving piece which brings the book in a full circle back to the optimism we can have in the goodness of children. It is a cliche to label them our hope for the future, but Lord knows in these times, our hope has to come from somewhere.
I was captivated by this collection, which takes the reader on a journey between emotion and intellect, politics and the personal, and I would recommend it to anyone who reads in order to think more deeply about ourselves as human beings. It is powerful stuff.
The Dressing-Up Box is published by Comma Press. The paperback edition is out on 25th June and is available to pre-order here.