Under The Dam And Other Stories, by David Constantine

Brilliantly brief, and proud of it
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The Independent Culture

Already published as a poet and translator, David Constantine is now emerging as a short-story writer of considerable talent. In stories such as "The Necessary Strength" and "Estuary", he engages with landscape, evoking the harsh splendour and terrifying beauty of remote settings.

He can also describe the moment at which a businessman senses the loss of his soul. He can make you feel great empathy with a lonely character who may or may not be a paedophile. He pieces together sentences with care, creating rhythms in his prose that reflect his facility with verse.

In "The Necessary Strength", an artist spends hours collecting animal bones, then drawing them, in a loft accessed by a ladder his wife cannot climb, because she is dying of bone cancer. Max and Judith respond in different ways to the white horse that presses its face against the window of their isolated home on a Hebridean island. Max is in awe of the optical effect of sunset on the horse's body, while Judith objects to hearing the animal "blundering in among her dreams". Later, she stares into the horse's eyes and "saw its strangeness" as "a gap made in her apprehension of the world".

"Estuary" is another story about a strong female character coping with ill-health. Following a breakdown, Frances spends time in a guesthouse by an estuary. Walking across sandflats, she is caught between an advancing storm ("a constant slide and skitter of dried wrack and other small detritus, and always the rustle, slither, low susurration of the fleeing sands") and the rising tide. Constantine describes the encounter between the elements and "the only warm-blooded living thing" in language of clarity and power.

The title story tells of lives torn apart by love. The central metaphor, the great dam and the tons of water it encloses, acts as a constant threat: "all the weight of it doesn't want to lie like that. It wants to be headlong". It's an extraordinarily powerful conclusion to a superb collection.

Nicholas Royle's short-story collection, 'The Comfort of Stranglers', is forthcoming from Serpent's Tail

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