The Shieling
 by David Constantine

Comma Press, 2009 Paperback
First collection? NO

The Shieling Facebook Page

David Constantine is an award-winning poet and translator. He has written 7 collections of poetry, a novel and a biography. This is his third collection of short stories, the previous being Back at the Spike (Ryburn) and Under the Dam (Comma).

Read an interview with David Constantine

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"Or come down off the mountains and the moors – people do, weathered and made strange by days without human proximities – and stand at the harbour, at the far end of the water-enclosing horseshoe, and from there it is exit, putting out, going forth, and access through a silent herd of islands into an ocean and the intimation of absolutes"

Reviewed by James Murray-White

With his new collection, Constantine has hewn a collection of worlds from a rock face. Instead of a geologist's chisel, he has used his insightful poet's eye to pry out the idiosyncrasies, tragedy, self-absorption and loneliness that encase the people of his worlds. Throughout reading of this book, I was equally saddened and repulsed by behaviours and by actions, and yet, as it all was so acutely observed, I was pulled back into each story again and again to read and hear and know of these people.

For instance, the title story, Beginning, contains a body, drowned in Manchester's River Irwell, a mother with dementia, an awkward, unconsummated flirtation between school-bound teens on a bus, and a madman, directing buses that are not his to guide. It is a tense story, yet not for the reasons one might expect. The narrator recalls many facts from a day 30 years ago, and blends them in an odd mix of passion and detachment. This duality told through one narrative voice continues through several of the stories – different places and people, and extremely different events, but relayed with this skilful blend of alienation and involvement. Regrets and Living On are examples of this style in action: Constantine weaving together a dispassionate telling of passionate events that coruscate peoples lives.

In The Man Who Said He Had Died, Edward has his life and that of his wife Pauline torn apart through misunderstandings and what should normally be an incident people can heal from, and heal from together. Instead, as it is told:
"The absent man and his accident worked on the wife and daughters in feelings that changed by the minute. Each alone was troubled, but together they worsened it for one another."
Four stories in this collection particularly stand out  for me: The Cave, Witness, Purgatory, and Petra. As well as exploring issues of human fallibility, they are linked by their strong use of natural elements: acave, a deep quarry carved out for coal, now filled with pools, an ancient wood and ancient ruins, and an island, with a remote lake at its heart. All these elements act as places of cathartic change for the characters that visit them, for good or for worse.

It is only the young lovers in Witness who after discovering a horseshoe pool full of "crystal-clear water", seem to experience any kind of peace afterward. Reverend Peter Simple, of the parish Penton Mewsey, in Purgatory, believes he finds communing peace when he visits a wood containing a "clover bank and a cressy well", but ultimately it is the devil and a deep black pool he's communing with.

This particular story has stunning twists and sub-plots, which could be separate stories in themselves. Simple's certainty in his actions, and his willingness to accept what is in front of him (Simple by name, simple by nature perhaps) see him undone but crucially unable to fulfil his pastoral vocation. He fails as a husband, he fails as a vicar, and he fails in his peculiar efforts to connect with and shelter a wild man who arrives in his parish, whom he first sees watching him through the "leper's slit" window of his own church. A grim tale, cunningly told.

In Petra, Constantine paints a bleak picture of a small island community, turned on its head by a summer arrival. The line "Poor Foster, I said, cut his throat on the train coming back from the war, last stop before the port, by all accounts", stayed with me for weeks after reading it – it epitomises both the horrors of war, and the potential horrors of human community, to be found at their starkest here in
Gerwick, a small hamlet of two dozen or so homes. It is, as Constantine sums up succinctly, an "unstable place". The turmoil that encompasses Gerwick is fermented in the small "paradise" lake somewhere in the hills of the island. And yet, despite the human tragedies that unfold, the narrator remains sanguine in his reflection upon the fortunes of those he lives amongst: "some sort of solvent ran through Gerwick".

This is really getting to the marrow of what Constantine is exploring and revealing in these stories. I discovered his poetry several years ago, and this, with his translations of the poetry of Goethe and Holderlin, are all part of his uncovering of flawed humanity through writing. Unlike many other writers within the classical tradition however, Constantine doesn't necessarily offer up any redemption, and I admire this. Creating characters that exhibit this kind of alienating numbness, or, in Peter Simple's case, absentness, doesn't create an immediate connection to the character, but the stories are vibrant nonetheless.

The Cave is about a journey made by characters that are drawn together by something indefinable, but both operate at arms' length from each other as well as from themselves. Within the cave, Lou and Owen listen to the sounds, sleep, eat, talk a little and ruminate on their situation:
"The pulse of inhuman life in total darkness continued unperturbed […] Something more cavernous than he seemed to have any inkling of was opening up in her, as she feared it would."
Their journey cracks open the chasm a little more.

The title story is meditative, exploring simplicity and solitude. The characters find intensity within the physical space – a gathering place for all these stories of crashing and crushing emotions perhaps. But part-way through the author reveals that "their Shieling was an invented place; and an invention, even one confined to simplicity, austerity, necessity, might be elaborated for ever by two people who have a vital interest in it". This physical/emotional place described as "so frugal in its amenities" must certainly collapse. Its narrator becomes “inconsolable. Still am in fact."

The concluding story, Words to Say It, weighs in at 42 pages, and feels a little too long. Portraits are created of sensitive individuals, edging toward each other across a cultural and emotional divide. After a long cold parallel silence, Constantine shifts his tectonic plates and the two characters slide toward each other. Some redemption seems possible.

A powerful gathering together of fragmented and fragmenting people in one collection. I highly recommend this masterly collection of stories.

Listen to the author read a story from this collection on Comma Press

James Murray-White is a writer, reviewer and filmmaker. As the spring bursts forth, he is to be found marvelling at unfurling snowdrops of daffodils and planting all manner of seeds in his garden and allotment in Bristol.

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John McGahern "Creatures of the Earth"

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What other reviewers thought:

The Independent

The Guardian