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on 2 June 2013
An almost flawless collection of stories from John Burnside. His previous story collection, Burning Elvis, is arguably the best of his early fiction - the novels don't really start doing anything for me until Living Nowhere - and this new book is a worthy successor to Elvis. Several of the stories are not too far removed from some of the novels, with their concerns for dead-end lives marked by violence in dead-end towns - the title story, Godwit, and A Winter's Tale, for example - while others are insightful character studies of people who are lost, in limbo, passing through.

What strikes me about this collection is the subtlety of John Burnside's concerns as a writer; what matters here are the slightest nuances of emotion and thought which, although transient and deeply private, are life-changing for their characters. This is not a book in which stuff happens. (Apart from a few murders, a beating or two, and some strange, darkly erotic games.) But having said that, a good short story could be defined as one in which not much seems to happen, yet everything does, if only in implication. And that defines the pieces in Something Like Happy perfectly.

Hard to choose a favourite - Perfect and Private Things, The Bell-Ringer and Roccolo are stand-outs; perhaps the best of all is The Cold Outside, an extraordinary story about a man dying of cancer picking up - in the sense of giving a lift home to - a transvestite who has been beaten up. This wonderful story is typical of the risks John Burnside takes in this book: small moments that are at once totally ordinary, and at the same time, totally unique, like those rare dreams that, once experienced, you know have somehow added something to your life; you're not quite sure what, but things afterwards are richer, stranger.
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on 3 February 2014
The stories in this book are not "pleasant", in the same way that Samuel Beckett's work is not "pleasant". Yet they show a mastery of the short story form and bring to it many of the same qualities that Beckett brings to his work. Stylistically and dramatically, they bear comparison with Guy de Maupassant's stories (and one of the stories, "The Deer Larder" directly evokes de Maupassant). In terms of human sympathy they reminded me of Beckett's famous dictum: "Fail again; fail better".
Some people will be put off by the stories' confrontation of "unpleasant matter" and their unswerving observation of human failings. Yet the stories' deep sympathy (as is also shown in Burnside's poetry) is always clear.
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on 26 January 2013
I have to give credit where credit's due: John Burnside's latest collection of short stories is well-crafted, carefully assembled, the work of someone talented and experienced. Short stories are, I think, hard to get right: there's only a limited space in which the author has to successfully create a believable (and readable) world; and then there's the question of how the stories tie to one another (if they do, which in this book they do but sometimes in a very subtle way). Burnside succeeds on both counts: each story in 'Something like happy' comes alive and leaves the reader with a lingering, unsettling sense, a particular feeling that runs through each story, quite distinct from the feeling in the stories before and after. The book explores strong, difficult themes such as the terrifying, despairing violence within a marriage, the painful question of memory (remembering one's youth, in particular), facing terminal illness, and- most consistently throughout the book- the quiet despair and loss that come within long marriages, with the creeping passing of time and the losses and lack of hope that can creep up on you.

However, even though I respect the author for what he's done here, I have to admit I didn't enjoy this book and struggled to finish it. It's not that the stories didn't come alive for me, they did, and they left me with various thoughts. Still, there was a coldness and desperation that ran through the book, and I as a reader responded to this in an equally 'cold' way: that is to say, the stories and the characters left me cold. There was little (if any) hope in the book- not that authors have any obligation to make me, the reader, feel hopeful! The book was full of quiet despair and a sense that life consists essentially of a series of (mostly gloomy and sometimes- at best- nostalgic) moments, some glimpses of joy in between if you're lucky, those though mostly illusory anyway and bound to get frayed at the edges with the passage of time. Most characters in the book seemed 'stuck': stuck in joyless marriages, stuck in time with a sense of no future, stuck in gloomy, small-town UK, stuck within their own aging, tired and (often) ill bodies. What I particularly disliked (as perhaps it felt scary to me?) was the response to this 'stuckness' by the characters which was, mostly, utter passivity & acceptance that this is essentially what life is, being stuck, with no future and no creativity or hope.
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on 29 April 2014
My first Burnside. Wonderfully well written, a fine and delicate stylist that reminds me a little of John Banville. But bleak, bleak stories. I will be reading more, but will need a break to digest the searing nature of these slices of modern Scots life.
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on 29 October 2014
An extraordinary book from an extraordinary writer. He can plumb the depths of the human condition with such ease and can move between male and female perspectives effortlessly. I loved every story and look forward to reading more of his work.
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on 29 March 2013
As a rule I read historical non-fiction but I am a big fan of James Joyce and this excellent book of short stories reminded me of "Dubliners" or some of James Kelman.
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on 4 September 2014
Great stories
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