Something Like Happy, By John Burnside

Splashes of colour and moments of joy enrich these fine tales of lives in flight from greyness

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The Independent Culture

Here, in 13 deceptively uninflected stories, is what Thoreau meant when he said most people live lives of quiet desperation. They're set mostly in small coastal towns – Fife, notionally but convincingly – and mostly concern lives lived in winter plumage, like the "Godwit" of one haunting rite-of-passage story, in which young men stalk waders on the treacherous sands and balance loyalty against romance. The bird itself, in summer feathers, soars improbably on the cover.

Yet each story has a splash of intense colour at the heart: the peach melba with crimson sauce made for a young boy by a beautiful Italian café owner who's there one moment and gone the next; a port-wine birthmark in "Roccolo", an Italian setting rather than Italo-Scottish this time; the hot flush of "Sunburn", a wry, miniature version of The Graduate, but with no Factor 60; the blood-and-bandages colours of roses and "gyp" in "Perfect and Private Things"; the splash of blood on a dance-hall floor in "Godwit" again.

What's interesting about these images is that they are all connected to ritual behaviours, tiny acts of consolation, ways of escaping an enveloping greyness. Red is the dominant, but not the only colour. There is a hallucinated blue mouse in "Slut's Hair", a tense narrative of marital threat, but there's blood in it too, when the husband, a bully with hair-trigger impatience and a drunk's just-so fussiness, extracts the narrator's tooth with DIY pliers. Sometimes the solace is aural rather than coloured, as in "The Bell-Ringer", where another lead female character discovers an unexpected new commonality in an ancient practice. Elsewhere, communication seems achieved, an exception, rather than natural or automatic.

These are Scottish versions of the stories of Raymond Carver, another poet-storyteller, but John Burnside makes more happen and with a kind of bleary intoxicated joy Carver was rarely capable of. That summer image of the black-tailed godwit fits after all because each of these stories in some way involves a flight from greyness, a migration of souls, and an endless search for moments that can be fixed in memory as talismans against despair. They're so well written that a rare off-kilter phrase or sentence jars for many minutes, and yet they don't drift into the awkward macaronics of "poet's prose".

Burnside writes tough, home-grown prose that inhabits the story form with perfect fit. Little even in the dialogue gives it away as Scottish; no Irvine Welsh phonetics, just a certain rhythm of speech. Dark sleet, wrapping mist, unexpected sunlight, "The Cold Outside", "A Winter's Tale", "The Future of Snow" suggest an equivalence between interior states and their physical setting. It feels very Scottish even without "likesay" or "ye ken".

The other famous quote about stoicism is Camus's consoling or horrifying last line: that we must imagine Sisyphus to be happy, or in the case of these remarkable tales with their rock-like experience, something like happy.

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