My rating: 4 of 5 stars
David Constantine’s short stories in this collection are fascinating. They are full of images and thoughts and they meander across beautiful landscapes while their characters contemplate death and life. I loved several of the stories and the rest, though somewhat opaque to me, were generally thought-provoking, evocative, and beautifully written.
Let me start with my favorites. I picked up the collection specifically for the short story “In Another Country.” I had read an article about how it was loosely based on a tragic true story and was being adapted into a movie titled 45 Years. The idea is immediately compelling: a long, apparently happy marriage is abruptly threatened by news that a body has been found in the ice. What follows is the deterioration of mind and marriage. “In Another Country,” in addition to being a compelling drama, is also a very tense read, somewhat like a thriller or horror even without those trappings.
Constantine doesn’t use quotation marks or separate dialogue into separate lines. He also uses lots of run-on sentences and incomplete sentences. In the stories I enjoyed the most, this didn’t bother me in the slightest. In more opaque stories, I struggled. The effects of these techniques are the frequently disturbing proximity of thought and speech and a blurring between characters. In “In Another Country”, I would say the lack of quotation marks heightens the emotions of the characters and the mood of the story. These are characters who have been married many decades, who can practically finish each other’s thoughts, and are only now confronting something that poses a real danger to their marriage. Their dialogue and the growing madness and the unsettled past blur together in a frightening way. When the cliff of emotions and sanity is finally breached, it’s because of a small but important detail that comes to light. “In Another Country” is an incredible story, masterfully crafted, and well worth the price of this collection.
“The Mermaid” is another favorite of mine. In addition to a strong sense of setting, a compelling domestic drama, and sharply drawn characters, “The Mermaid” stands out because of the metaphors Constantine chooses and the way he brings back objects mentioned earlier that have even greater import later in the story. A nativity scene carved out of pieces of wood stands out in particular. There are many lines I love in this story. Speaking about wreckage the protagonist hopes to salvage from the shore after a storm: “the breakers coming in like friendly hounds with timbers in their mouths.” To describe the loss of his sense of time: “the sky outside either lightening or darkening.” To describe losing himself in his art: “After such work he came into his own house like a stranger.” I found the ending a little strange, and I’m not quite sure what parallels Constantine was working with, but “The Mermaid” really stood out for me.
My cynical mind suggested to me that “Strong Enough to Help” would turn out to be a horror story, but it was really a sweet story about being drawn out of isolation and finding love. I also really enjoyed the darker “Under the Dam” with its vivid descriptions of a viaduct and a dam and complex relationships. And the last story in the collection,”Mr. Carlton”, left me with tears in my eyes and a strong sense of place.
I think the stories that worked best for me were those that really focused on setting and pulled back occasionally from the dialogue and thoughts of the characters. Stories I struggled with were often close to stream of consciousness, ended abruptly after little forward movement, or described people and settings I couldn’t immediately identify with or picture. “Asylum” was one of these. It’s set in a mental asylum but I couldn’t get a good sense of the place and the characters didn’t really have an arc, though I think the end was supposed to be hopeful. “Wishing Well” seems to be tracing the start of new love, but I didn’t really understand the characters or why one in particular was telling the stories she was telling. I couldn’t quite grasp what was important about this story.
In revisiting these stories for this review, I find I appreciate all of them very much, and some I struggled with are beginning to make more sense now that I’ve had some time. Some of the difficulty could be because I’m American and Constantine is a British writer. The relationship between his characters and the landscapes seemed decidedly European to me, though I’m not really sure what I mean. I also think he is making very complex and adult observations about people and their relationships, and perhaps I’m a little too immature and inexperienced to grasp these details.
Reading what is difficult is such a powerful way to learn, though, and I loved the experience of reading this book. There are some books that are fine to give up on (sorry, The Complete Cosmicomics) and there are others that reward you after you struggle with them. I will want to return to “In Another Country” and the others stories someday, to see what they have to say to me then.