All the Souls
Two doctors and a folklorist meet in northern Brittany in 1898, determined to prove that leprosy still exists. But their ardour for collecting evidence draws them into a dark, watchful landscape where superstition is rife. Many of the stories in All the Souls hover round themes of ‘collecting’ and recovering the past. From poignant and dangerous obsessions with the iconic (a Romano-British figurine; a carved wooden Christ-child; a bronze angel) to direct, often puzzled conversations with ghosts, the characters in this book all strive to make contact with the impossible. A girl becomes obsessed with a figure she only sees through a Camera Obscura; an angry man strikes up a friendship with a sixth-century saint; a revenant mother by a mountain lake tries to explain herself to a grieving friend.
'A considerable achievement.' – Stevie Davies on The Breathing
Review by New Welsh Review
Ceredigion based Mary-Ann Constantine’s lovely, purgatorial stories in All the Souls are possessed of a quiet, often understated or hidden beauty, like the undersides of leaves. They inhabit the liminal world between this one and the next and have a deliciously lingering, let’s call it a genuinely haunting effect.
The opening novella ‘The Collectors’ tells of the Anaon, the collective name for a vast population of penitential souls, which can be seen – in the right light or by a properly attuned and sensitive observer – all around us in nature, hanging by the millions from branches of willow and alder. This long tale also depicts a quest through late nineteenth century France to find the last of the remaining lepers. Conventional it is not, yet the sure and palpable sense of history (as one might expect from a specialist in Romantic era literature) is there in the language, which is often very matter-of-fact, never frilly or nonsensical, and perfectly exact when it needs to be. Constantine often interlaces Breton songs or old Welsh rhymes into the prose, adding quiet lilts and slightly forlorn echoes of long-ago voices.
There are slightly more conventional ghosts drifting through some of the other tales – if ghosts can ever be conventional – from the male ghost only visible though a camera obscura, through an animal-shaped poltergeist which shakes up a house like the wind to a monk, or early Christian saint called Cewydd who appears on the banks of the Wye.
The effect of reading them all in a single sitting is a bit like attending a entirely believable seance, blending the chimeric with the desired, the corporeal with the ectoplasmic, the pieces on the ouija board moving as if unbidden, yet, as it transpires, perfectly controlled.
New Weslh Review
Review by Planet
In Mary-Ann Constantine’s late nineteenth century Brittany both leprosy and folk beliefs are on the wane, although it must be said that the latter are doing considerably better than the former, notably the Anaon (the dead) who linger on half-in and half-out of our world and are given a sizeable chunk of the narration in ‘The Collectors’, the first and largest story in her newest collection.
The Anaon are at the same time ethereal and very human – each one clinging to his or her own branch waiting for the final release to wherever they eventually go, while at the same time being parochial, slyly humorous and vain enough to want a prominent place in the folklorist’s book. It is this weird half-world that is the point of reference for the rest of the story as the twin, and perhaps not so different, human pursuits of scientific and folklore research are pursued by the protagonists. It is this search for the perfect specimen, fuelled by the personal ambition of the researchers, which Mary-Ann Constantine coalesces into one gruesome and telling image.
Between science and folklore there is little doubt where the author’s preference lies. After the most dramatic moment of the story the two medical doctors are quickly packed off and we follow Le Coadic, the folklorist, home on foot through a disorientating scary and uncomfortable series of encounters, including an unwitting encounter with the Anaon who take up the story in the present tense with the ability to see, in a weirdly refracted way, both into the future and the past. Finally the soluble boundary between sea and land, living and dead, past and future resolve themselves and Le Coadic is permitted to feel that he has arrived on terra firma, although we know that this period of solidity will soon give way to the chaos and confusion of the First World War.
The Anaon themselves tell us that they are never really seen but only ever glimpsed in our peripheral vision and this fragile sideways awareness becomes a key element of how the world is perceived in these stories. Amongst other things Mary-Ann Constantine uses a Camera Obscura, an unidentified animal in the house, the retracted perception of a migraine, and a tankful of fish to remind us that the world is not often what it seems, and that through the looking-glass of the sideways glance liminal beings emerge to accompany, tease and provoke the principal characters. Although mysterious these beings are given a down to earth treatment that keeps them real and allows them to be sometimes as bumbling and incoherent in their ethereal lives as we are in our, supposedly, real ones.
Neither of these two worlds seem to have messages for the other – they simply overlap. The contact between them, however, does sometimes resolve itself into a moment of what feels like an intimation of fleeting grace: light shining, blue ad clear, through a bottle of Tŷ Nant; a flight of geese high in the air; or a tree full of starlings.
The narratives are often anchored in the tasks of daily life (working in a field, childcare, or fetching wood for example), and this work is rendered with a clarity and physicality sometimes heightened with a simile. My personal favourite ‘like something coming out of a tin’ is used to describe a boy and his Nain emerging from a lift not quite big enough to comfortably contain them.
Although there is comfort and wonder in these moments the author also brings us into disturbing contact with the elements as precious objects are dug-up, reburied and unearthed again, and as people are chilled to the bone by icy water, or burnt, and as the wind whirls our world around. Trains, planes and rally cars also serve to rip open our carefully prepared version of the world, and we have to pause while things take their proper place once more.
The Breton customs in the book are not over-explained and most Welsh readers will have a felling of familiarity with the Lady of the Lake and Cantre Gwaleod themes in ‘Lake Story’, where Constantine feels free enough to blend beliefs about fairies and ghosts in a way that feels coherent.
I enjoyed the play between the solid and extended versions of the world. However, the ambiguity sometimes got too much for me and I found myself flicking back on occasions just to check who was talking.
My first reading of these stories gave me a sense of the slipperiness that lies between the Mary-Ann Constantine words, and rereading has brought the various layers into focus in different ways each time. My recommendation is not only that you buy this book but read it a second time as soon as you can.