Jonathan Cape £16.99

IoS short story book review: Something Like Happy, By John Burnside

Scottish writer John Burnside's new collection explores a world on the border between reality and imagination, the stated and the unsaid

The Scottish writer John Burnside's seven novels, 13 volumes of poetry, two memoirs, and previous short-story collection have contrasted the dark side of human behaviour with the relative purity of nature. His protagonists are loners, the dispossessed, the disintegrating; his favoured atmospheres those of menace and foreboding. The protagonists of this collection are similarly lost, often lacking the will to fight for more.

The title story which opens the collection is set, like his novel Glister, in a dingy town contaminated by "the works"; a place, like so many of Burnside's locales, devoid of hope. The narrator is a girl who has taken the first step away from a dead-end future: she has a good job. Her locution is scattered with the clichés that Burnside's narrators often use, for example "when push comes to shove". In first-person narration, this adds to authenticity, but in subsequent third-person stories, phrases such as "nothing could have been further from the truth" seem clunky.

Elsewhere, Burnside's prose glitters, thanks to his synaesthetic use of colour – "it was a summer of hard, yellowish heat" – or his way of capturing the elements: "the rumour of coolness"; a "thick gauze of heat". The pollution of the town is powerfully evoked: "a chemical haze ... and the thin ferrous smell that became a taste in the mouth, part rust, part churchyard."

The narrator has a choice: whether to snatch her chance of escape, or to succumb to the easy option. Just as at the swimming hole, a "near animal force" seems to pull her down into the depths, so her life is in danger of being sucked into inexorable gloom. Burnside's use of allusion here is similar to that in his poetry. Poetry allows him to express sensations that would be crushed by prose, and similarly, the allegorical and the metaphorical here prevent heavy handed direct messages.

Pointless violence stains much of Burnside's work, bleeding outwards and contrasting with the beauty of the natural world, which, though often dangerous, is not imbued with spite, like vengeful humans. Often, the violence is simmering rather than on the boil; seething and waiting, threatening to lunge. Burnside's protagonists are locked in abusive relationships, as in "Slut's Hair"; dead ones, as in "The Cold Outside"; or alone.

The cruel former beauty in "Roccolo", who delights in luring young boys to witness her acts of sadism, shows traces of the paedophilia that has threaded through the author's previous work. Her chilling equanimity and self-delusion while recounting her acts of torture conjures memories of one of Burnside's most vile protagonists, the Mengele-like character in his first novel, The Dumb House. Her wanton evil makes "Roccolo" the most disturbing story in the collection, and one that is hard to keep reading.

Nature is often killed by man in Burnside's work, for example in his poem "Base", or the novel Glister. But those who kill nature also lose a part of themselves, as in his poem "The Hunt in the Forest", where "no one survives the hunt: though the men return ... they never quite arrive".

"Roccolo" flirts with the supernatural, which Burnside also employed in his most recent novel A Summer of Drowning. The ending is ambiguous, as is Burnside's wont. He favours liminal states and blurred hinterlands: the border between reality and imaginary; the stated and the unsaid.

His protagonists often choose solitude over the cacophony of conventional company. In "Peach Melba", a man reflects on a summer when a catastrophe deadened his soul. Myriad small touches are a delight. For example, the bird-loving spinster sisters who "speak in a quiet sing-song ... slowly changing ... into the things they most loved". There is more enchanting synaesthesia here: "His absence ... green as the scent of thuja."

In some of these stories, nature is the star, and the characters have a symbiotic relationship with their environment, their senses open and attuned. But nature has a dark side. In "Godwit", the dangerous Sands are evocatively described, but the characters are not developed enough for the reader to care about them. In "The Future of Snow", a policeman gazes at the beauty of the soft, falling snow, and thinks about his mistress, who succumbed to its lethal soft embrace.

The elusive nature of happiness, and indeed, whether it's a goal worth seeking, is a theme of many of these stories. In "Perfect and Private Things", a female lecturer indulges in her annual ritual of sending a bouquet of roses anonymously to a male student. She views happiness as a vapid social construct, but there are hints that her stance is an elaborate self defence against affection and vulnerability.

As a child, Burnside longed for a happy ending when his father talked about moving to Canada, but they only made it as far as Corby. Just as the boy Burnside knew his happy ending would never come, so it is for most of the souls in these stories.

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