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
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'