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.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May


Arts and Entertainment
Haunted looks: Matthew Macfadyen and Timothy Spall star in ‘The Enfield Haunting’

North London meets The Exorcist in eerie suburban drama


Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year


Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living