The final story in David Constantine's collection "In Another Country" begins with a grieving widower who, mere hours after his wife's funeral, sends a text message to his adult daughters. "I'll be out of touch for few days," it reads. "But don't worry. All will be well." Then the man wedges his cellphone under a tire on his car and runs it over.
He drives away, following what seems to be a grim plan, but never reaches his destination. The story, like many of those preceding it, veers off its apparent course, sending its protagonist into encounters with characters who are struggling and troubled, all of them straining against forces beyond their control.
Constantine, who lives in Oxford, England, has enjoyed a long and decorated career as a poet and translator. He has published four collections of stories and a novel in the United Kingdom, and in 2013 his "Tea at the Midland and Other Stories" won the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award. Until now, no American edition of his fiction has been released.
"In Another Country" assembles 17 of Constantine's stories, allowing readers to experience his unusual manner of storytelling, the results of which are often fascinating if sometimes frustrating.
The frustrations with Constantine's prose can result from its form and style. Dialogue, presented without quotation marks, gets buried deep within paragraphs that can become oppressive in their length, for example. Even careful readers will have to reread sections to sort out their meaning.
But the stories offer rewards. Constantine's touch with imagery and ideas produces many memorable lines and passages. Even a simple lament about poor weather becomes something interesting. In "An Island," he writes, "Weather knows itself at last when it finds some terra firma to hit against, and best, most thoroughly, knows itself when there are some habitations too and creatures in them who can feel what it is like."
Dark clouds follow the characters in these stories. It's possible to lose count of the suicides and suicidal intentions, and death and loss are as present as wind and rain. Even in situations providing a bit of levity, Constantine works in devastating lines.
"The Mermaid" is the story of Jack, a woodworking hobbyist with hopes of creating something that will please his disapproving spouse. Jack is wounded when she casually belittles his work. "Behind her, on the wall, was a piece of marquetry he had done when they were married," Constantine writes. "It showed the church they were married in. He felt a crumpling sadness at the sight of it, and a sort of pity for them both."
Those emotions — sadness and pity — infuse much of this book, but the stories never suffer from a sense of sameness. That's because Constantine begins and ends stories in places few writers would imagine, and in between he shifts direction in ways few readers will expect.
Nick Healy is the author of the story collection "It Takes You Over." He lives in Mankato.