Comma Press £7.99 Order for £7.49 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
The Shieling, By David Constantine
Life, death and healing with water
Wednesday 02 September 2009
David Constantine's third short story collection is even stronger than his last, the powerful and exquisitely written Under the Dam. But The Shieling is so good I'll be surprised if there's a better collection this year. Not every tale succeeds – the title story is a curiously abstract piece – but when the best is as profoundly meaningful as "The Cave" or as intensely moving as "Words to Say It", the bar is set very high indeed.
Constantine's characters are complex and unpredictable, often damaged, sometimes broken, but water – which is everywhere – has restorative powers. Springs and wells abound. In "The Cave", the tentative lovers Owen and Lou overnight in the mouth of a limestone cavern. "And bubbles in hundreds meanwhile rode out through the slit on the cold rapid slide of water, lasting in the lighter darkness until they popped."
Sometimes water offers more threat than sustenance. In "Words to Say It", while swimming in the Aegean Sea, Ben has the awkward encounter that will shape his life; in "Wishing Well", the incoming tide presents real danger; and another character commits suicide at sea.
Constantine writes beautifully, breaking the rules. "The coal had been near the surface, their descent through the strata of sand and gravel did not take long." Arguably, the comma should be a semi-colon, but he writes with a poet's licence. "There is no liveliness of words comes anywhere near the life of life itself," he writes in "Beginning", about teenage love. Maybe not, but Constantine comes as close as anyone writing today.
Death is never far away, its proximity a reminder to live decently, happily. There are suicides and death is final, with one possible exception. Edward, in "The Man Who Said He Had Died", tries his wife's patience by insisting on the truth of his claim. Describe it, she demands. "As sorrow, he answered, sorrow, regret, an aching sort of love becoming grief." There is sorrow and there is grief, but also compassion, and when it comes, it is uplifting.
musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years
Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 McKamey Manor: This 'extreme' haunted house is the stuff of nightmares
- 2 Russell Brand says he will 'probably' give up acting to focus on his revolution
- 3 Watch what happened when food critics were unknowingly served McDonald's
- 4 David Beckham's Haig Club whisky is exactly what’s wrong with the Highlands
- 5 Ottawa shootings: Bruce MacKinnon's cartoon is the perfect tribute to soldier Nathan Cirillo
This is what a film sex scene actually looks like on set (mostly awkward)
Revolutionary lost Caravaggio painting 'Mary Magdalen in Ecstasy' identified
After Sam Smith’s Mobo success, is the help of a pushy parent the surest route to stardom?
Pottermore: JK Rowling writes new Harry Potter story featuring 'greying' 33-year-old wizard
JK Rowling to publish new Harry Potter story online for Halloween
Of course, teenage girls need role models – but not like beauty vlogger Zoella
Cameron is warned 'no possibility' of UK reducing immigration and that bid to bring in quota on migrant workers would be illegal
Support for EU membership 'at highest level since 1991' with most Brits wanting to stay 'in'
Tony Blair 'says Ed Miliband will lose 2015 general election'
Thousands with degenerative conditions classified as 'fit to work in future' – despite no possibility of improvement
Putin: The US is to blame for almost all the world's major conflicts