The Dressing-Up Box by David Constantine

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What you can be guaranteed with David Constantine is a fabulous story, masterfully told – and this can be said for his latest offering The Dressing-Up Box – which left me enraptured and stunned at the sheer brilliance on show.

Comma Press are a publisher whom I love, they continue to churn out top quality short story anthologies and the odd collection too (in these climes it seems to fall to the independent presses to give the hungry short story market what they crave) and with The Dressing-Up Box they have produced a magnificent book, both inside and out.

There are so many great stories in this collection, but I’m going to focus on two that really were outstanding, on a number of levels.

The opening story and the title story of the collection – The Dressing-Up Box is set against the backdrop of war, an almost apocalyptic type of scenario, where we find a group of children have taken over an abandoned townhouse – where the chiefs of this rabble, the oldest by birthright rule over the younger children in their care, that is until a little boy called Monkey arrives and they discover The Dressing-Up Box. Things quickly change with Monkey’s introduction (and what an introduction) and the dynamic shifts, becoming something more akin to a potent and beguiling cocktail made from the remnants of William Golding’s ‘Lord of the Flies‘ and J.M. Barrie’s ‘Peter Pan‘ (the lost boys).

Constantine also keeps the dread, fear and tension pumping throughout the story, with visitors appearing at the door, or armed men trundling past in cars. Some of these people also try to get into the house, peering and leering through the mailbox – the final visitor to the house would appear to have sinister intentions, those that are best left unsaid, and they do remain unsaid, but Constantine’s deft touch makes this visitor and his intentions hit home like a hatchet to the head and literally made my skin crawl.

The children have been cherishing and holding onto what’s left of their childhoods as best they can as they are faced with such chaos and anarchy raging outside. They have been using the dressing-up box to reenact plays and entertain each other – but now they are scared, their supplies are running out and there are wolves at the door. They need to act fast, they need to survive, but can they escape whatever evil waits beyond the door?

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When I Was A Child – is a brutally, visceral example of how a short story can overtake a reader, how it can overwhelm them with feelings, drowning them in beautifully tragic prose. With When I Was A Child Constantine should be championed for shining his bright light into the darkness, suffering and systemic abuse that took place at the orphanages of the Brothers and Sisters of Mercy and Nazareth House.

They are names I know all too well. Unfortunately. When I started this story I had no idea of the emotional impact that they would have on me, and I wasn’t even the one that suffered at their hands. I’ve been living within this shadow for a long time, it had been draped over my family for the whole of my childhood. You see, my father, he was interned at Nazareth House, with his brother. He was a orphan, his father took off when they were young, and his mother was committed to a mental hospital, unfit to look after her sons.

My father used to talk about his time there, about the abuse that took place, both physical and mental. One time he was locked in a cupboard for being naughty (taking second helpings when he was hungry), panic set in, and he threw up after hyperventilating – when the nuns came to get him out, they made him eat his sick back down, to keep the sin that corrupted him inside where it belonged, as not to contaminate anyone else they’d said.

There are probably other unspeakable things that happened during his time with the Sisters of Mercy – who he said had no mercy whatsoever. But these are his ghosts he needs to exorcise – but I firmly believe that Constantine’s story can help him with these and many others who suffered at their hands.

‘A girl with red hair, for example – with the remnants of red hair, to be exact, the lovely fullness of it having been cropped because the Devil was in it – Jezebel, the Sisters had named her, she had a birthmark over her heart where the Devil had kissed her, and for her own good, the saving of her immortal soul, they would beat her often and long with a strap, a cane, a chair leg or whatever else came to hand – this child of fourteen, insolence incarnate, kept up a sardonic commentary to left and right, never turning her head and never the least movement of her lips betraying her.’

Constantine delivers a remarkable expose on the abuse suffered by children at the hands of these monsters of men and women – he’s able to delve deep within the institution of this abuse, guiding the reader through the most traumatic of events, but never does this story turn into a pity parade. The characters are strong in the face of such corruption of their youth and Constantine’s prose is delicate and assured. His words are carefully thought out and planned to perfection, bringing healing for those that take the journey and hope for those who survived.

A note from my father who also received a copy of this book – When I was A Child is shattering. One of the most shattering stories I’ve ever read. Constantine was able to sum up my darkest thoughts, feelings and inescapable dread of that place and those people – it’s as if he took all my memories and arranged them more clearly than I ever could. And for that I thank him, I now have something to share with my friends and family who enquire what my childhood was like, and for this I will forever be in his debt. Thank you David.

The Dressing-Up Box is masterful storytelling from a true colossus of the art form. Constantine’s collection at its heart is about people. What shapes them, what moulds them , what transforms them into what they’ve now become – some are searching, some are hoping and some are trying to escape, figuring out what they must face, to eventually break free.

The Dressing-Up Box is one of the most accomplished short story collections in years. Pick up a copy and discover the brilliance that resides within for yourself.

The Dressing-Up Box is published by Comma Press and is available here.

David Constantine

Born in Salford, DAVID CONSTANTINE has published several volumes of poetry, and two novels (most recently The Life-Writer) as well as four previous short story collections: Back at the Spike (1994), the highly acclaimed Under the Dam (2005), The Shieling (2009) and Tea at the Midland (2012), which won the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award in 2013. David’s story ‘Tea at the Midland’ won the 2010 National Short Story Award, and his story ‘In Another Country’ was adapted into 45 Years – an Oscar-nominated film, directed by Andrew Haigh and starring Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling. With his wife Helen, David edited Modern Poetry in Translation for many years. He is also translator of Hölderlin, Brecht, Goethe, Kleist, Michaux and Jaccottet. He lives in Oxford.

Reviewed by Ross Jeffery

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