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Under the DamReview - Under the Dam
And Other Stories
by David Constantine
0954828011, Comma Press
Review by Tony O'Brien
Aug 29th 2006 (Volume 10, Issue 35)

The stories of Under the Dam are compelling depictions of singular individuals whose lives are overshadowed by immanent tragedy. Showing an assured grasp of the power of language, these stories paint absorbing pictures with a depth that is sometimes astonishing. The stories are realist in the sense that they belong in the familiar world, but like the best realist fiction they show us everyday people and places while at the same time reminding us that behind the façade of familiarity there are worlds that are deeply imagined. The inner world of imagination seldom emerges into consciousness with the clarity Constantine achieves in this collection. David Constantine is a writer with a keenly observing eye; like a forensic investigator no detail is small enough to go unnoticed. Constantine also possesses the rare gift of making his observations plainly accessible to others.

What is disconcerting about this collection is how effortlessly Constantine leads us into these intensely rendered lives. As easily as leading a child through a haunted forest, Constantine takes us to the edge of a threatening tide, through a market rich with the stench of blood, to the lounge of a woman stricken with bone disease, shuffling her way across the floor. We look over the shoulder of a man who talks to his long dead mother at her graveside; we take a seat on the settee with a family reliving the grief brought to the surface by a wedding. In all of this there is a sense that there is nothing odd or unusual. When the narrator of Visiting states: ''I could show you where we went in, at a little gate behind the church, and I could show you where we came out....'' you know he could, and you wouldn't be able to turn aside. Many of the characters are resigned, almost fatalistic. Constantine's characters live in the presence of forces that threaten to break out and overwhelm them, like the water of the dam that gives the book its title story.

Language is a feature of Constantine's work, from the use of archaic words such as 'drouth', 'wrack', and 'mithering' to descriptive phrases that are miniature works of art in their own right, but which combine to create lives and landscapes that are so vivid they have an almost tactile quality, and are layered with meanings. This is an example of writing that brings its own pleasures independently of the carefully controlled plots and finely drawn characters. There are sentences that make you stop and read again for the sheer indulgence of recapturing their moments of delight. Several motifs recur throughout the book. Katya in Another Country has died with an embryo inside her; Francis's nervous anxiety in Estuary is experienced as ''like the excitement of a quickening''; later she sees an embryo in the unfurling bud of an uprooted tree. There are many references to ice, to the untamable power of water, to light, to loss and to time.

In Afterlife Constantine draws together themes of death from antiquity to the present, all as a context for exploring a man's jealous love. The story is set in Athens, with the narrator pacing the city while his lover visits the alluring Alexandro. Having consented to the visit, the narrator baulks at the thought of accepting an invitation to meet his rival for a meal or a drink. As he lurches through the city he reflects on its disembowelment, on the cripples and drunks on the fringe of the markets, finally, like Dante, descending into an inferno of slaughter and death, the underground market. Constantine's writing is wonderfully rich and descriptive: ''I was near Thissio, where the electric slows and goes under and shakes the ground and you know it is burrowing through the eons of the city's life, all the shards and bones and splinters of marble and the stains of iron and bronze, all the strata, all the generations trampled down''. As the story reaches its conclusion desire defeats itself, leaving only remorse.

There is an impending sense of doom with these stories, none more so than the title story. A young couple, Carrie and Seth, having rented a house under an ancient viaduct move to even more precarious accommodation at the base of a dam. Long before they move their future is writ in uncertainty. When they relocate they are joined by Carrie's lover and the only question is whether the water that seeps through the cracks in the dam will become an engulfing torrent, or their lives will give out under the weight of emotional pressure. Either way they are going to be swept away.

In The necessary strength a crippled woman is almost stranded attempting to cross a field and avoid a horse. She doesn't have the necessary strength but the horse proves less threatening than she thought. In this typically layered story the woman finds reserves of strength when faced with her frozen, obsessive husband. All on video takes place in a single room with the advantage that video footage of a wedding brings in both a full cast of characters, and poignant insights into the thin line between pleasure and regret. Mr Silverman in The loss loses his soul (which weighs precisely 21 grams) and learns to recognize others who have lost theirs. When melting ice reveals a body an elderly man is reconnected with a past that never really left him. Constantine is a writer who sees common human vulnerability in widely diverse situations.

In Self Portrait the friend of a writer remarks that ''the truth of a fiction rests on concrete details'', recalling James Joyce who on hearing his portrait painter wanted to capture his soul told him: ''don't worry about my soul, just get my tie right''. Concrete details, faithfully rendered, are a feature of Constantine's writing. Although the stories could properly be described as poetic they are not abstract. The people, environments and everyday things that populate these stories are made of solid stuff, even if, like the sands of Estuary or the skyscrapers of The Loss, they shift about, or give the appearance of it. There is simply too much in these stories to do them justice in a short review. I can only say that if you read one book of short stories this year make it this one.

 

© 2006 Tony O'Brien

 

Tony O’Brien is a short story writer, and lecturer in mental health nursing at the University of Auckland, New Zealand: a.obrien@auckland.ac.nz


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