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.