My first introduction to Constantine’s work was when his story ‘Tea at the Midland’ took home the 2010 BBC National Short Story Prize. When we reviewed that Prize anthology at the time, I commented on the ‘simultaneous economy and breadth’ of Constantine’s winning piece, by which I meant his ability to compress all the frustrations and emotions of an entire, fraught relationship (as well as a contentious discussion about ethics and aesthetics) into a very brief tale. Now, as well as lending its name to Constantine’s latest collection, ‘Tea at the Midland’ opens it, and aptly so, as its density and scope are a pretty representative introduction to a collection that lacks little in authorial ambition. Constantine’s work is rich in depth and detail and poor in easy hand-outs: his readers are expected to work for their pleasure. I mean this as a massive compliment. Though if he’s writing, on one level, with Hemingway’s iceberg in mind, eschewing needless exposition or narratorial intrusion, on all the other levels, he’s about as anti-minimalist as they come. His prose is thick with descriptions and qualifiers and similes and all the other paraphernalia of a very sensory, poetic writer, which isn’t very surprising, of course, given that he’s also a hugely accomplished poet.
As story collections go, Tea at the Midland is relatively long, comprising sixteen pieces of varying lengths, from the five-page eponymous starter to the forty-three page ‘An Island’, an epistolary love-letter-slash-diary-slash-suicide-note by an ex-monk to his unnamed former lover. One of my favourites, ‘An Island’, like several other pieces in the book (‘The House by the Weir and the Way’, ‘Ev’s Garden’) is excellent on nature and wilderness and the presence of humans within this: ‘I crawled along the chine in a blizzard of spindrift through the tumuli home to this tiny lair with every stitch of dress and pore of exposed flesh sticky and proofed with salt.’ The hero has retreated in the wake of a failed relationship, and, he suggests, a failed life, to the wind-battered island of Enys to do odd jobs and indulge in some solitary meditation. The idea of sanctuary is one that recurs in the book; here, with the idea of a retreat; in ‘Asylum’, where a writer works with suicidal girls; in ‘Ev’s Garden’, where a crew of misfits strive to create their own sanctuary in the grounds of an old cemetery; and in ‘Strong Enough to Help’, where a visiting market research worker offers friendship to a lonely poet. Back to ‘An Island’, though, where Constantine’s contemplative observations (‘I counted thirteen swans on the Pool today. […] It moved me to tears, how white they were on the turbid water and how they held steady against the wind, or tacked and steered into it, or let it drift them when it chose.’) are married to a theme of solitude and isolation. Alive to the beauty of his surroundings, his narrator is nonetheless deeply unhappy, and while his story tells of a community of drifters and recluses drawn together in the local hotel and bars, he’s also keenly aware of their potential hostility to strangers. There’s a passage in this story that describes anxiety and depression with terrifying acuity, beginning, ‘Then I assemble all the arguments against me. I accumulate the proof that I’m not fit to live.’ The effect of the self-analysis combined with reported gossip and sharp-eyed descriptive scenes reminded me, more than anything else, of Lessing’s The Golden Notebook – a narrator struggling with limited success to reconcile the all parts of his/her life.
The entire book is woven through with great honesty and realism; even in the stories that are more clearly speculative, like ‘Goat’, the prose is grounded in brilliantly vivid images and the plots touch on social issues (like homelessness) that are concrete and troublesome in our own world. ‘Goat’, though, mostly impressed me with its Ballardian scenes of watery (icy) apocalypse and unlikely Bacchanalian excess, as a randy old capricious tramp hosts a drunken party in a makeshift fortress in an abandoned school. Alan Warner’s These Demented Lands came to mind here, as well as in ‘The House by the Weir and the Way’ – in ‘Goat’, it’s the peculiar and tiny sub-cultures of people living in their own private, mad worlds that did it, and, in ‘The House’, it’s the idea of a newcomer precipitating the fall of an old, crumbling and secretly unhappy world. But although there’s plenty of misery and decay here, Constantine manages to balance it with redemption and hope: the hero of ‘Alphonse’ escapes his oppressive care-home; the ending of ‘Strong Enough to Help’ is both beautiful and generous; and the fierce communion and drive that gathers momentum during ‘Ev’s Garden’ is rousing and wonderful.
There were a couple of stories I found less successful; the structures of ‘Charis’ (a monologue to a dead sister) and ‘Doubles’ (a semi-ghost story), for instance, didn’t work as well for me, probably because I felt that the stories in each of them might have been better told straight, without the framing device of the speakers/listeners; and ‘Lewis and Ellis’, the tale of the last days of an odd friendship, sank somewhat in the midst of a glut of more dramatic, colourful or emotionally resonant stories. But with writing as assured and evocative as Constantine’s, and so many other stories in the book besides, these aren’t enormous criticisms.
Any Cop?: Certainly. This is one that rewards concentration; a sumptuous, if occasionally harrowing, read, and definitely a memorable one.