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Burning Bright, By Ron Rash

The quest for dignity, even in adversity

The US poet and author Ron Rash is probably not a writer who appears on the radars of most British readers, but hopefully that will change with this exquisitely crafted collection of short stories.

Burning Bright won the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award last year, the world's biggest prize for the form, and while we only now have a UK edition, it was worth the wait.

The 12 stories here are restricted to the south-eastern United States around the Appalachian mountains, and each primarily deals with people in rural or semi-rural settings, but Rash manages to eke out something universal about human nature; a feeling of unity in the face of desperate times.

These desperate times are not restricted to the present day. Although the majority of the tales are set now, there are powerful stories set against the backdrop of the Great Depression, the aftermath of the Second World War and the American Civil War. The cumulative effect in the collection of dealing with similar themes across such a wide timeframe is one of deep resonance, aided in no small part by Rash's exemplary skill when it comes to storytelling, from the cleanliness and efficiency of his condensed sentences to the overarching themes and emotional undertow.

We begin with that Depression-era story, "Hard Times", about a poor farmer who attempts to hunt down the culprit when some of his hens' eggs go missing. What he discovers is heartbreaking, and there is a perfectly balanced, excruciating scene of revelation that will have readers' hearts pounding.

From there we cut to the present day in "Back of Beyond", the first of two stories that deal with crystal meth addiction, in which a pawnbroker goes to warn his addict nephew that the local sheriff is on to him, only to discover that his brother's family has been transformed beyond recognition by the drug.

These two stories, like everything in the collection, are peppered with essentially good people fallen on hard times; good people struggling to make ends meet and make sense of the world around them; good people trying to hold onto their humanity and dignity in the face of overwhelming pressure.

Sometimes events conspire against them, sometimes not. In "Dead Confederates", a misguided attempt at graverobbing ends in disaster for some, but a strange kind of justice for the narrator. Elsewhere, an old man has to go on the run after innocently attempting to harvest his father's ginseng root from a national park, and a husband slashes his wife's tyres in a move motivated by jealousy, which inevitably comes back to haunt him.

Burning Bright is delivered with such a surety of hand and such a considered distillation of the human spirit as to warrant the book jacket's comparisons to Carver and Faulkner. Highlighting the continuity of the human struggle over the ages, Rash has used a focused spotlight to illuminate a wider truth about society and our place within it.

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