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I really wanted to like this but didn't...
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.