BLOG Gwen Davies

NWR Issue 99

All the Souls

Published this month by Seren, All the Souls, a short story collection with novella by Mary-Ann Constantine

All the Souls by Mary-Ann Constantine

Gwen Davies first published ‘Absolution’, which appears in this collection, in 2010 in the short fiction collection Sing Sorrow Sorrow. She also published a second story from All the Souls, ‘Lake Story’, in NWR 99 this spring. Mary-Ann Constantine is a NWR regular, both as critic and writer of prose and fiction. A few years ago, Gwen read an early draft of ‘The Collectors’, the novella which leads this collection, and has been watching to see whether Mary-Ann would flesh it out into a novel or go down the route which comes most naturally to her, to keep it spare. She chose the latter. Editor’s verdict on ‘The Collectors’ in its published form:

The premise doesn’t sound promising. The story is set in 1892 in Brittany, at the summer St John festival. Folklorist Le Coadic is tracking songs and superstitions of death and the afterlife. He meets up to help two doctors seeking the most blatant cases of leprosy to prove the disease has not been eradicated in France. Fifty-something Mari-Jobig’s face is ‘largely paralysed; gashed with scars, most healed over but two or three open; tubercles in the thicker folds of skin.’ Grisly? Yes, but there is fun here too, and philosophy. Mari-Jobig has an infected finger which the doctors immediately amputate, without any anaesthetic other than the distraction of her own crooning, a ditty Le Coadic is delighted to discover is an original interpretation of the legend of Sant Yann’s holy finger. All three want Mari-Jobig, and, once separated, her finger, for their own purposes, and any authorial finger-wagging centres on whether the collector Le Coadic’s acquisitiveness outpaces the others’, despite his apparent intellectual squeamishness. A second strand, timeless, is told by various souls (anaon) who, according to Breton legend, spend purgatory perched on branches in endless rain; their branches often being close to their former home so they can keep an eye on their descendants. These episodes bring the whole narrative squarely into the Welsh Gothic tradition (see Jane Aaron’s Welsh Gothic, published this month). They also serve as feisty alternative to the text of Le Coadic’s forthcoming masterpiece, a ‘natural history of the dead’. Unfortunately they also predict the tragic fate of la famille Coadic, and probably that of the collector himself. The physical comedy, grotesquery and magisterial set-scenes of the historical accounts are counterpointed delightfully by the soul-narratives, and it is here that Constantine’s style hits its groove, a melding of the sensual, the erudite and the satirical:

{Time is} desperately erratic; it comes in pulses, sometimes pulled into a pinpoint where all is pure present – your sinful self, your twig, the waiting, and every single moment in the wind and the rain experienced minute by minute to the full, hours after days after weeks after months after years, and you know that you are getting your penance well and truly done as it should be, cold and miserable and grimly sequential, no cutting corners. Then at other times it opens out hugely like a frightening umbrella, and you are hovering over the centre of a vast lake of time with the past and the future lapping round the edges.... It makes you feel very sick at first, your mind spins horribly. I thought at the beginning that it was part of the punishment, but I prefer to think of it now more as compensation for the long stints perching. A penitential perk.

Teaser from review by Jemma L King, of All the Souls, published in NWR 100, 25 May

Overall, this is a collection that is deeply coloured by the intensity of nature, of tragedy and superstition. It’s intangible in places, and a slow burner too, but the appeal is to something deeper than your intellect or your scientific left brain. All the Souls appeals to some rustic-received sense of spirituality instead.

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