David Constantine | Rivers of The Unspoilt World | Comma Press: £8.99

  Salford author David Constantine, the award winning poet (Queen’s Medal for Poetry 2020), short story writer, translator, and editor, returns with his haunting new collection, ‘Rivers of the Unspoilt World. Constantine’s sixth collection of short stories has a laser sharp focus on the importance of human connections in a post-pandemic world, now that we are left to make sense of its aftermath and reconnect with the lives we have put on hold. Constantine’s three extended short stories, ‘Our Glad’, ‘Living in Hope’, and ‘The Rivers of the Unspoilt World’, are an intriguing mix of human history and tragedy with modern day contemplation on how the Covid-19 pandemic will be remembered in future history. It is this blend of history and modern day contemplation that makes the collection a poignant thought provoking and deeply moving must read on the loneliness of the human condition but also on the redemptive power of the human spirit to endure such loneliness.

As Constantine writes: ‘Every single human life is inexhaustibly, unfathomably, rich’ and the three stories in the collection tell the stories of fully-realised, deeply flawed but beautiful lives. In ‘Our Glad’ Constantine tells the deeply moving family history of a northern matriarch who recounts the family’s trials and tribulations to our narrative biographer — her nephew. ‘Our Glad’, through its telling of the personal stories of Glad’s family tree, covers the breadth and width of Mancunian history over the last one hundred and fifty years, covering the erosion of the workhouses, the rise in the suffragette movement, the establishment of the welfare system, the horrors of the first and the second world war, the end of service in the big houses, the tragedy of forced adoptions, the history of mental health treatment. This local family history is interwoven with the topographical history of Salford and Manchester: from the creation of factories, cotton mills and the building of railways and canals due to the Industrial Revolution industrialising the landscapes of Manchester and Salford, to the decades of regeneration of the northern landscape that followed after the closing of the factories and the mills. It is the metaphysical reflection on the worth and the miracle of a human life (as the reader reflects on why ‘Glad’ lived when her sibling died at the end of the story) that elevates ‘Our Glad’ into a modern masterpiece on how to tell the history of a human life without slipping into sentimentalism.

Constantine in ‘Living in Hope’ takes the same approach of blending human history with history of place and past lives. The story focuses on the academic Victoire who finds herself trapped in Paris as the global pandemic hits while she is researching the atrocities of the fall of the 1871 Paris Commune. It is Constantine’s mastery in blending the modern fragility that Victoire feels — trapped and isolated during the global pandemic in a beautiful, melancholy, and deserted Paris — interlaced with the flashes of bravery that Victoire undercovers in her research —shown by the members of the Paris Commune during La Semaine Sanglante (Bloody Week) as the national French Army supresses the Commune — which turns the story into a wonderful meditation on what the human spirit can endure. Constantine, by having Victoire meeting and befriending two refugee children, the abandoned Félicité and the mute child-soldier Donatien, portrays how these cycles of human tragedy, endurance and redemption are as prevalent in the 21st century as in the 18th century.

The last titular story in the collection ‘The Rivers of the Unspoilt World’ tells the story of a young biographer who tries to befriend the ailing poet Hölderlin as he is plagued with mental illness after publishing his masterpiece, Hyperion. Hölderlin is housed by the carpenter Ernst Zimmer in an abandoned tower and in his delusion speaks to a once departed love. ‘The Rivers of the Unspoilt World’ evokes Poe’s famous elegiac poem ‘The Raven’ as Hölderlin is haunted by his former love, similar to the narrator of ‘The Raven’ who is haunted by the death-departed Lenore. Constantine, like Poe, blends narrative prose with lyrical verse to create a dreamscape of grief and longing and the story is full of affecting scenes as we see a once great poet reduced to a shell of his former-self through his mental illness. I found the most affecting scene the one where the young biographer learns from the now grown up child of the household in which Hölderlin was staying how Hölderlin was accosted and forced into the mental institution as she watched on helpless.

Constantine throughout Rivers of the Unspoilt World creates fully formed lives that have an urge for human connection and an understanding of how their lives fit into wider historical narratives. The characters’ desire for self-awareness and understanding of how their own personal history fits into the human history of the loci they inhibit reveals a truth about post-pandemic contemporary society — as the collection shines a light on the human fragility many of us feel as we attempt to reconnect with the world around us. Many of us now try to live our lives in a way that counteracts the pandemic’s narratives of unimaginable loss and human tragedy. The collection captures wonderfully the precipice many of us are teetering on as we begin to live our lives with hope of a better tomorrow.

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