Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

"Something Like Happy" by John Burnside (Jonathan Cape, 2013)

Burnside's not only a leading, prolific poet but a novelist and short story writer too. In small doses I admire his poetry. En masse they sometimes lack variety - one poem blurs into another. How would his stories (from New Yorker, the BBC, etc) fare?

In "Something Like Happy" he handles the hinge/key moments and set pieces (e.g. the event at the Twenty-Two) well, except that the 1st person voice of the young female trainee bank teller doesn't suit the character. She uses words like "encircle", and when Burnside wants to make a point, he uses her to say his words.

  • "she looked almost pretty, like a girl in a television show on the night before she runs away from everything, written out of the script to begin a new life somewhere else" (p.17)
  • "It snowed early that year: a freak blizzard, a beautiful anomaly" (p.17)
  • "You could see the child in every face, a buried life rising to the surface, a lightness about the mouth and eyes" (p.17)
  • "that pale haze, and the thin ferrous smell that became a taste in the mouth, part rust, past churchyard - but there was something else that day, something I hadn't felt before. if I had to describe it, I'd say it was a sense of how things must have been before any of us came to be in that place, a stubborn beauty in the light that filled the trees" (p.18)
  • "That first snow had been the snow of a film; this was the snow in a dream ... as the snow erased the gardens around me, I could feel this pure cold singling me out, isolating me on that street and erasing me, flake by flake, moment by moment" (p.26)
  • "It was quiet now, no talk, no sound, only the silent continuum of snow" (p.28)

The main character's edginess with her sister is told and shown - fair enough, and of course the eloquence of characters' thoughts in a story needn't be realistic. I might have hoped for more from 30 pages. He writes as if there are no space restrictions. Let's see what the other stories are like.

"Slut's Hair" (which I've seen before, and which I like) is 3rd-person privileged, female. Again there's a described edginess between the main characters that is later demonstrated by dialogue and action. The woman suddenly has a tooth pulled by her husband with his pliers. Afterwards, he goes to the pub. She discovers an animal in the kitchen. That she all but forgets about the previous violence makes me think that there's been a transmutation of memory/trauma into the symbol of the animal.

  • "what she could see was something vague and unfinished, like a scribble in blue ink among the wet shadows" (p.42)
  • "She was surprised to realise that she wasn't afraid, but the animal was" (p.42)
  • "she felt a sudden, desperate need to gather it up and spirit it away before Rob got home ... All she had to do was be confident" (p.43-44)
  • "She couldn't tell what it was thinking, but it didn't look scared any more, it just seemed to be listening for something, far off in the distance" (p.45)
  • "she began to realise that she hadn't caught the mouse at all" (p.46)
  • "she needed that mouse to be safe. It was her secret, and she had to keep it from harm. Nothing is more precious than a secret ... Rob could never be allowed anywhere near it" (p.47)

"Peach Melba" has a more interesting structure, with interpolated essay-like passages. Outside of those passages, Burnside still manages to gild the epiphanies

  • "I see now that it was then ... that my fondness for solitary weekend afternoons was born. It had never occurred to me before, but I was one of those souls who prefer to be somewhere else when the carnival is passing along the high street, just as it had never occurred to me that unrequited love could be so precise and deliberate a thing" (p.66-67)
  • "and, after all these years, I still cannot tell where my self leaves off and the world begins, as everything - self and world, soul and matter -falls away into nothingness, beautifully, elegantly, and as it must leaving me stunned and bereft, and alone" (p.70-71)

Near the start of "Sunburn" (about a guy who gets sunburn at the start of each summer) there's "Whenever I hear someone say that self-knowledge is the key to a happy life, I have to laugh. It's not that I'm against self-knowledge, as such; but, for me, it's just a hobby, like every other form of knowledge" (p.75). Near the end there's "I didn't know, when I was fourteen, that what I loved most was the cold, just as I didn't know, until much later, the the future wasn't really what I was after ... I let it happen for love and eternity".

"Godwit" ends on a beach in the fog, flirting with disappearance - the weakest story so far.

"The Bell-ringer" feels much longer than it need be and is in need of editing - "... Martha, who had suddenly started coming to the house on Saturday mornings with cakes and baskets of apples. She never came when Matt was there, but when he was away she would invite herself over for coffee and a chat. It had become a fixture: a tradition, even; on Saturdays, around ten-thirty, Martha would arrive and they would sit by the Aga and have long conversations" (p.124). Again there's the urge to flee whenever some snow or fog's around - " she would just disappear, maybe go out for a walk in the woods by herself, in the white and the quiet" (p.137). At the end there's no surprize.

"The Deer Larder" is a strange tale embedded in a more normal narrative about illness and e-mail. Only in the final paragraph does it suddenly take off - "'It's not that Mr Crisp can't talk,' she said - and I pictured my own Dr Marsh saying this - 'But it seems to me that he's said what he wanted to say and now he's waiting for his answer.'"

In "The Cold Outside" (and other stories too) there are long passages of thought that couldn't have happened in the brief moment allotted to them. Indeed, they seem more verbose than his usual prose - "I nodded, but I didn't say anything. I really didn't want to make something of it, even if there was a question in my mind, because it wasn't the question he probably thought I wanted to ask. I didn't need to know about his life, of what he did sexually, or what he wanted to do, or any of those things. I certainly didn't want to know what the wrong party had been, or how he had come about his cuts and bruises. Some part of me was curious about him, but it was his happiness I was curious about - because I thought he wanted me to imagine him as happy, and I wondered why it mattered to him. Or maybe I was just surprized that he seemed to believe that happiness was possible - and probably that was why I asked him the question I thought he wanted to hear" (p.178). "A winter's tale" (which I like) contains a passage of reflection just as the narrator's threatened with a knife.

"The cold outside" includes another Burnsidean passage " The best part of the day was getting up at dawn and going down to the cool, grey kitchen, the dark garden waiting at the door like some curious beast strayed in from the fields, a casual attentiveness in the coming light that seemed ready to include me, as if included everyone else, in a soft, foreign stillness" (p.181)

"Roccolo" has interesting ingredients, though p.210-212 seem needlessly repetitive to me.

So in the end the stories don't help each other - the narrow range of themes, tone, pacing and technique become evident. Readers of his poetry will be familiar with his passages about snow, mist, changes of light, sensations that almost defy description - all linked with a loosening of identity. Many of his narrators use the same type of repetition - e.g. "she was annoyed too, annoyed and resentful" (p.132) "it had been an effort to hide how empty the house felt without her - an effort that " (p.165). The diction of the epiphanies doesn't change. There's a limited set of social settings too. There's little happiness or humour - even the couples who still live together claim not to know each other well.

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