The Dressing-Up Box and Other Stories, David Constantine, Comma Press, 2019, 256pp, £14.99 (hardback)
David Constantine’s fifth collection of short stories, The Dressing-Up Box and Other Stories, is ostensibly about loss, conflict and loneliness. His characters are driven to the edge as they struggle to engage with the world and must deal with their suffering. Yet, throughout the collection, the author clings to the promise of hope during turbulent times.
Opening with the title story, ‘The Dressing-Up Box’, Constantine has his readers guessing from the get-go. A group of children board themselves up in the ‘Big Safe House’ while an unnamed conflict rages in the outside world. In these difficult times, the children find hope in the discovery of an immense dressing-up box, which seems like ‘the upsurging and overflowing, of a source that would always replenish and never never end’. Despite this reprieve, the conflict and its eerie ambiguities set the tone for the rest of the collection.
Other conflicts hit closer to home, such as the divisive, racist forces in ‘Rivers of Blood’ and the climate crisis in ‘Siding with the Weeds’. Taking its title after Enoch Powell’s infamous speech, Harry and Alice, two long-time elderly friends, remember the racial tensions of the late 60s. Harry reflects on the fairer society they witnessed develop, and then ‘the counter-revolution, the systematic rolling of it back, to the state we are in now’. Constantine pushes us to acknowledge the injustices in society, but also our collective guilt, that human cruelty has left us ‘steeped, steeped, steeped in blood’. Children are again posited as a source of hope in favour of positive change against suffering (the promise and threat of generational ‘revolution’ and ‘counter-revolution’ resonates throughout the collection).
In ‘Siding with the Weeds’, Joe visits Bert for the first time in years to find his friend living in the shadow of grief after his wife’s death. Bert has taken residence in a converted shed to hide from his house full of memories. Bert’s own loss leads him to grieve the death of the natural world. He revels in the weeds growing through the abandoned hotel behind his house, in trees sprouting from bombsites, in nature’s reclaiming Chernobyl. Intermingling misanthropy and, ultimately, a call to action, the story advocates ‘siding with the weeds’ – for the natural world to reclaim ours and overgrow the wounds of personal, political and ecological disaster. I found Constantine’s power to make a personal tale ring with social commentary deeply affecting.
Throughout The Dressing-Up Box and Other Stories, the author continually explores one’s distancing away from the modern world, in all its barrenness, and towards nature: a father plumbs the ocean’s depths for no apparent reason, to the horror of his young daughter; two children witness the sorrow of a widow, who can no longer find flowers to pick on the beach as she did with her husband; elsewhere, a neighbour passes the night listening to the darkness from her shed comes to light.
Individuals drift away from the world, often pining after another, to haunt those who observe it. Constantine paints these portraits with such delicacy of feeling that he creates an intense impression of personal suffering, almost dreamy and fable-like in style. Indeed, he makes us believe that a person’s tears ‘must surely be weighted with the sorrow of the whole wide world’.
The collection ends poignantly with ‘Ashton and Elaine’, a story of an isolated individual brought back from the edge. Ashton, an abandoned, mute child, is able to reconnect with the real world against the odds, through the help and love of those around him. This necessary and hopeful conclusion leaves us with a sense of resolution denied by the stories that precede it.
Like the ‘dressing-up box’ of the title – that container of alternate worlds which allows the children to escape their harsh reality – the collection also contains such possibilities. But between the pages, Constantine reflects on the forms of escapism it offers. While the dressing-up box provides hope for the children, their ability to imagine something better for themselves gives us hope as readers. Perhaps in their well-organised, peaceful community (starkly contrasting Golding’s Lord of the Flies), Constantine envisages the same for us.
The story of the dressing up-box, despite its troubled backdrop, seeks to discover a better future in the next generation. However illusory or confined to make-believe, whether from books or dressing-up boxes, there may be truth in it yet. Children like Greta Thunberg are already leading the way where adults have failed. Perhaps we need these stories to remind us not to give up and to take the step.
For more information and to buy The Dressing-Up Box and Other Stories by David Constantine, visit Comma Press’s website.
Words by Katrina Bennett.
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