Through the thin spaces, into plenitude

In Another Country by David ConstantineIn Another Country: Selected Stories introduces us to some uniquely powerful stories. The plots derive from everyday experiences, but the thematic focus hones in on a deeper life meaning. For many of the characters, this meaning is beyond their reach and so their souls become lost and leaden; and yet, for those connected to it, there is a rush of learning, a surge of strength, a flight into invention and a contented wisdom.

In the story “Tea at the Midland,” a woman having tea with her lover can’t take her eyes away from the wind surfers in the bay beyond their window. She sees intoxicating wonder by their freedom in the light, wind and water, but her lover wants her to see only him. He is festered with irritations. In the story “Loss,” a businessman caught in a relentless, successful existence watches his soul leave him during a presentation.  And in “Memorial,” a college professor’s former student says, “…I think he directed me into plenitude and it’s up to me to grasp it, bear it, say how it was and is.”

Those who see the deeper meaning are portrayed as set apart, lonely and self-possessed, as is the college professor, whose funeral service is barely attended, and also Owen Shepperd in the story “The Cave.” Owen takes his girlfriend Lou Johnson to the limestone country of his childhood where he’s enchanted by the water underneath the rock. They reach a cave where they hear the waterfall that is the source for the limestone streams, but Owen’s insight alludes to a greater source in the whole world order of life. Indeed, he is aware of what author David Constantine describes as “the thinness of the habitable skin of the earth,” which means Owen is able to see into astonishing, sacred spaces.

“Why did you want to listen to it again? Lou asked. Because, Owen answered, I’ve often – and in some periods constantly – wanted to live as though I could always hear that cave. I don’t want to live forgetting there’s a noise like that.”

These are not stories to read all at once. They are too rich for that, demanding to be read one or maybe two at a time, allowing space so as to fully comprehend the intention of each story’s sequence of events.

Sanctuary is a must for these thoughtful and melancholy characters. It arrives in one story with the encompassing noise of trains that pass overhead; in another with poetry books delivered by the mailman; and in another by a persistent white horse. In the last story, Constantine paints a parallel of one world as a sanctuary from another world’s man-made chaos.

David Constantine is well-known in Britain for his award-winning poetry, translations and fiction. In Another Country: Selected Stories is his literary debut in the United States. The flawless prose pulls us in with the grace of meaningful and eye-opening poetry. It is a kind of excellence rarely published nowadays. The rewards of these stories come immediately, and then again, long after the last story, as if we’ve been struck with an aftershock of hope that we, too, can experience the noise in the cave and the white horse.