The Dressing-Up Box

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“The trouble with you...is that you feel that people’s stories have to make some sort of sense. Whereas in reality it’s all accidents.” So says one of the characters in David Constantine’s collection of gripping, dark and powerful short stories; stories whose unexpected twists seek to bring in some sort of light and meaning.

Constantine has a skill of ensnaring you in his short narratives, even when they are just a few pages long. You quickly come to care about the characters he creates and the scenarios he paints. He gets you empathising with his protagonists, many of whom are caught in a heartless, miserable world, seeking some sort of sanctuary or escape.

The routes they chose are varied and often temporary. An ageing widower retreats into his garden shed waiting for some sort of “endgame”. The abused and bullied orphans find joy with their doomed pet horse, White Horse. An alienated father finds peace and release dangling under water at the end of an oxygen line, and the children in the title story find refuge in the imaginative possibilities of a dressing up box which allows them to buffer their innocence from the encroaching war and destruction of the outside world.

Indeed imagination, art and words are often seen as possible, if sometimes unreliable, ways of finding emancipation. The old man in Breccia makes some sense of his life through his obsessive recordings in an enormous book, and the mute soldier in Rue De La Vieille-Lanterne is able to communicate again through song.

However words are not trustworthy. The lecturer in What We Are Now comes to share the disillusion of his subject — the poet Rimbaud — that literature is “all lies”. The words carried obsessively in the pocket of another French poet, the eccentric and awkward Nerval, are not able to save him from a lonely, squalid suicide, dangling by what he thought was the Queen of Sheba’s garter.

In such moments, language seems to fail the characters, and they have to retreat into themselves, silent and defeated.

However, Constantine’s empathy and solidarity with the broken and lonely always shines through to suggest that redemption is always possible, if sometimes, tantalisingly just out of reach. Many of the characters find peace through looking backwards and reinterpreting their experience.

In Rivers of Blood, two friends remember the power and positivity they felt in organising and marching against Enoch Powell’s racism, but this collective consciousness and powerful personal rebirth now seems to elude them, and the rest of those we meet in this book: “I have to keep persuading myself there was once a time of hope.”

This is a moving, compelling and thought-provoking collection, whose short narratives will invade your consciousness. Constantine’s sympathy for those alienated, distorted and brutalised by an inhumane, haphazard system shines through every tale, and reminds us why we need to act on our mad, bad society, not just to make sense of it, but also to change it.