David Constantine at Blackwell’sSarah-Clare Conlon, Literature Editor
He’s been hailed as one of the greatest writers of the short story form, and now David Constantine’s highly anticipated fifth collection of short stories is teetering on the edge of being launched into the big wide world.
You may remember him as being the Comma Press-published author of the short story ‘In Another Country’, which was adapted for the big screen to become the Oscar-nominated 45 Years. Directed by Andrew Haigh, the film saw Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling’s 45th wedding anniversary party-planning go to pot when a body turns up in Switzerland.
However, that’s not the only feather to David Constantine’s bow. Along with short stories, he has published several volumes of poetry, novels (the first, Davies, came out in 1985 and won the Southern Arts Literature Prize; his most recent, The Life-Writer, was published in 2015 alongside the compendium collection In Another Country: Selected Stories to mark the UK release of the aforementioned movie and was named one of The New York Times’ 100 Notable Books of 2016), non-fiction and polemic works, and translation.
Born in Salford, he now lives in Oxford where he is a Fellow of Queen’s College, so this foray back up north to launch The Dressing-up Box and Other Stories, out with Ancoats-based Comma on 12 September, is a rare chance to catch him reading from and discussing his work.
You may remember him as being the Comma Press-published author of the short story ‘In Another Country’, which was adapted for the big screen to become the Oscar-nominated 45 Years
Those stories, then. Following his debut collection, Back At The Spike, he published (all with Comma) Under The Dam in 2005, The Shieling in 2009 (shortlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award the following year), and Tea At The Midland and Other Stories in 2012. This snaffled him the Frank O’Connor in 2013 (beating the likes of Debora Levy with Black Vodka) and the title tale ‘Tea At The Midland’ picked up the prestigious BBC National Short Story Award.
So it’s been seven years between his fourth and fifth ‘true’ collections. It’s been garnering praise – ‘unashamedly moving’ (The Independent); ‘unabashed fascination with every leaf and branch of inner life’ (The New York Times) – A L Kennedy says of the new release: ‘The Dressing-Up Box does the deepest work of fiction – it tells us strange, hard, beautiful truths for our time.’ She goes on: ‘Constantine has a sure grasp of the fear and fragility within his characters.’
This is certainly seen in ‘Midwinter Reading’, the second story in; although as with many of the subsequent pieces, that fear is faced and that fragility overcome in one way or another. This one features no children, although lots of the others do – the reader being invited to see the world afresh through a child’s eyes (‘The Diver’, first published in The Reader, feels almost like a coming-of-age turning-point moment for an 11-year-old girl faced with the possibilities of death; ‘Autumn Lady’s Tresses’, broadcast on Radio 4 in 2016, watches two friends as they, and the very specifically described landscape – those leaves and branches – around them, grow older and grow apart).
The opening story, the titular story, submerges us straight into a strange world, an almost alternative reality, complete with an overflowing Magic Porridge Pot-esque dressing-up box. A bunch of kids of varying ages are holed up in a ‘Big Safe House’, the only adults spotted deemed dangerous to the point of enemy; in Animal Farm-style, perhaps even Lord Of The Flies, a natural leader emerges…
Some of the stories feel a little like myths being retold, or new takes on old legends, but perhaps, in dark times, David Constantine is suggesting that we might need to look backwards in order to move forwards. There you go – here at CT, we even provide you with readymade questions for the Q&A after the reading. You’re welcome. Now, go forth and listen as he reads from the new book and talks about this and his other work with Man Met’s Nicholas Royle.