Books in brief: From childhood trauma to happiness (as such)

Lemn Sissay explores his youth, and David Constantine’s short stories reward the effort

Lemn Sissay. Photograph: Noah Seelam/AFP via Getty

Lemn Sissay. Photograph: Noah Seelam/AFP via Getty

 

MY NAME IS WHY
By Lemn Sissay

Canongate, £13.99
As a mature poet, Lemn Sissay’s creative life is rich and productive. He was the poet laureate of the 2012 Olympics. He’s a chancellor of Manchester University. But so much of that creative life is underpinned by the traumas of his early childhood, traumas that he reveals to the reader as delicately as he would a new poem. Each chapter is prefaced by just such a poem and interspersed with social workers’ reports and testimonies from survivors who endured the same horrors Sissay did. Sissay’s exploration of his childhood and ultimately his own identity is as devastating as it is beautiful and speaks to the reader about what it means to belong, and how essential our connections to each other are, no matter how broken by fate or circumstance. Becky Long

THE DRESSING-UP BOX AND OTHER STORIES
By David Constantine

Comma Press, £14.99
This is a disparate collection with some very dark themes, such as death, child abuse, mental-health issues and unspeakable violence, but even the bleakest stories have some redemption in them. Several of the best stories feature children. In the title story a group of children are in a big house; the outside world seems at war and there is menace all round. They have been promised a safe escape route but we don’t know how safe it is. When I Was a Child is a shocking story of child abuse in a Catholic Church orphanage, but the darkness is not without some light. Ashton and Elaine, another of the children’s stories, is arguably the best and certainly the most heart-warming. All in all, a difficult read but it will reward the effort. Brian Maye

HAPPINESS, AS SUCH
By Natalia Ginzburg, translated by Minna Zallman Proctor

Daunt Books, £9.99
Natalia Ginzburg never fails to dazzle, and Happiness, as Such is another triumphant novel. This is Daunt Books’ forth republished title by Ginzburg, and once again the reader is quickly ensnared and welcomed in to an Italian family drama rich with warm, accurately drawn characters and a subtly intriguing plot. This novel is part epistolary and centres on the fate of Michele, the estranged brother who has run away from Italy. His mother writes him caustic letters, the young Mara writes him heartfelt and naive letters and Michele rarely replies. The language is pure, clear and laden with tenderness. A fine portrait of life as it is lived and felt. Mia Colleran

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