The Dressing-Up Box is David Constantine’s fifth collection of short fiction. Constantine’s short stories have garnered many fans and much praise (winning, amongst other honours, the BBC Short Story Prize in 2010), and sit alongside a body of work including two novels and multiple books of poetry.
As Lara Pawson notes in her praise for this collection, David Constantine’s prose has an ‘addictive’ quality. His writing is ethereal, elegiac and poetic, and at the same time, utterly down-to-earth; his stories are delicate and shattering. This is writing which leaves you wanting more.
I first fell in love with his writing after seeing Andrew Haigh’s 2015 film 45 Years (which is based on Constantine’s short story ‘In Another Country’) and listening to Constantine read the story himself. ‘In Another Country’ is a portrait of an elderly couple’s marriage which is upended by a strange piece of news: decades ago, the husband’s then-girlfriend disappeared in an accident in the Alps, but now, a letter informs him, her body has been discovered preserved in a melting glacier. With its lyrical prose and tender examination of time and ageing, it encapsulates what is so compelling about Constantine’s stories.
The stories in The Dressing-Up Box recall the concerns and characters that dominate Constantine’s previous work – the lost and lonely, ramshackle places and rough sleepers, people battered by the passage of time and by their own untamed minds. And, interestingly, a few stories even occupy very similar territory to ‘In Another Country’, where a blast from the past disrupts the fragile peace of an ageing marriage. I was especially delighted to see Constantine revisit this idea in new ways here. For instance, in ‘The Phone Call’, a strange telephone call comes out of the blue and lays bare the fissures in an older couple’s relationship. And in ‘What We Are Now’, a woman in her fifties encounters a man she knew at university. Thirty years ago, he was an eccentric outsider with an ardent affection for her. Now, however, he has become entirely detached from society, living in squalid conditions, his mind and everyday existence in a kind of freefall. In both stories, people are left reeling by the effects of time, and we sense that after these encounters, the characters’ worlds will never be quite the same again.
These stories are delivered in Constantine’s signature prose, where everyday speech and characters’ internal thoughts blend into one breathless, poetic stream, as in the opening of ‘The Phone Call,’
The phone rang. I’ll go, he said. Normally he left the phone to her but they were cross so perhaps he wanted to put himself even more in the right. She remained at the table. This keeps happening lately, she thought. Oh well, what if it does? He came back: It’s for you. – Who is it? – He shrugged: Some man. By the time she came back he had cleared the table, washed the dishes and was watering the beans – his beans – at the far end of the garden. She stood in the conservatory, observing him and trying to make sense of the phone call. A long summer evening, birdsong, everything in the garden doing nicely. But she could tell, or thought she could, that he was watering the beans much as she supposed he had washed the dishes: to be indisputably in the right.
Themes of ageing, loss and grief appear in many of the other stories in this collection. And while some are realistic in style, others have an almost hallucinatory quality. The haunting ‘Midwinter Reading,’ for instance, opens with a poet preparing to perform her work at a small gathering. As the story moves towards its devastating ending, it takes on a disconcerting, dreamlike logic.
Similarly, in the story ‘bREcCiA,’ we encounter a lonely man who is in possession of a mysterious book of the same name. Much like the infinite, maddening tome in Borges’ classic short story ‘The Book of Sand’, this book also threatens to unhinge anyone who seeks to understand it. The book bREcCiA consists of odd collages depicting all the wonders and horrors of the world and seems, perhaps, to represent time itself – there is one page for each day of the year, and it takes its name from accretions of rock that are formed over aeons.
‘bREcCiA,’ like many of the stories in The Dressing up Box, works to a final crescendo which is so poignant it takes your breath away. Again and again, Constantine’s stories lead the reader into a space which is almost unbearably painful. A space where, even though we might want to look away or find a salve for that pain, we cannot. These are stories that plunge into – and bear witness to – an almost unspeakable sadness.
Although Constantine’s stories frequently focus on ageing, there’s a particular attention to children and childhood in this collection (the book is even dedicated to ‘the children and their children, in hope…’). Some stories explore childhood through the lens of memory. For instance, the protagonist in ‘Autumn Tresses’ recalls a childhood moment where she and a schoolfriend once had a strange encounter when spying on an adult. Now, though, that moment is long gone. This story is a moving meditation on time and loss, but it also manages to vividly convey how strange and unsettling adulthood appears from child’s perspective. ‘It was one of those moments – the luckier you are, the later they first come – when children see with certainty that grown-ups suffer.’ Similarly, in ‘The Diver’, a girl who accompanies her father on a diving trip also unexpectedly confronts the unfathomable world of adulthood.
Children feature in other stories too, often struggling bravely through a diseased world created by adults. The title story takes us into a gaggle of children in a rambling house who discover a dressing-up box of lustrous, exotic costumes. But what appears at first glance to be an jolly escapade becomes something altogether more haunting. And in ‘When I was a Child’ we are taken into the world of a religious school where a litany of awful things are perpetrated on the children by the grown-ups entrusted with their care (and although I generally admire Constantine’s ability to bear witness to the unbearable, I have to admit that this story pushed at the limits of my ability to not look away).
Throughout, there is a constant awareness of the awful possibilities of the world – from the internal, delicate unravelling of people’s own minds, to the abuses perpetrated by people on one another. And like the characters, the world itself frequently appears to be teetering on the brink – there are familiar landscapes tinged with almost post-apocalyptic overgrowth; weeds overwhelming any attempt at order.
Nevertheless, not all is bleak, and there are hints of redemption – in ‘Ashton and Elaine,’ a young boy is found half-clothed and cowering, unable to speak. We gather quickly that Ashton cannot relate the dreadful things that have happened to him. ‘Among the marks on his body those on his wrists and ankles, of shackling, were perhaps, being intelligible, the easiest for the eyes and the mind to bear.’ But Ashton is taken in by a family who cradle him with ordinary tenderness. And sometimes, it seems, that is enough to make the world a little better.
What also perhaps offers a glimmer of hope are words themselves – sometimes Constantine’s own poetic prose seems to suggest that it matters that we bear witness to (and put into words) the sadness and suffering that people endure. But, strikingly, many characters also draw on poetry themselves – finding refuge in the way others have put the world into words. In these stories, characters quote poems, learn poems, write poems, and seek sanctuary in poems. One story even charts the final days of the poet Gerard de Nerval in 19th century Paris, before he took his own life on the Rue de la Vieille-Lanterne.
To say that The Dressing-Up Box is an affecting and haunting collection doesn’t quite express the impact of these stories. These are stories that fill you up and empty you out all at once, that burrow into your consciousness, and in the end leave you feeling as if you’ve just woken up from an inexpressibly sad but beautiful dream.
Becky Tipper is passionate about reading and writing short fiction. Her stories have appeared online and in print, in publications including Prole magazine, The Lampeter Review and For Books’ Sake. She has won the Bridport Prize and has been runner-up in the Society of Authors’ Tom-Gallon short story award. Becky was born in the West Midlands but currently lives in Maine.
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