REVIEW – John Burnside: Something Like Happy

John Burnside

Rating: 4/5

I read this book because I have a book of poetry by John Burnside, which I liked. I set up a Google alert at that point for his work, and I started getting all of the fantastic reviews that this book has gotten in my email.

(An aside: How else do people keep up with their favorite writers? Particularly obscure ones? Follow their publishers more closely? Google Alerts? Hope that it comes through in all their blog reading?)

I read this book about a week ago, and I am glad that I let it sort of sit in my brain, rather than blogging about it immediately. I don’t know if you find this with short stories, but I often get tired of reading a single short story collection because they seem very same-y. This is particularly true for some of the old short story masters, even Raymond Carver – I just felt like I knew what was going to happen to his characters in a lot of his stories. Short story writers today do a bit more balancing of moods and feelings, but you still sometimes get a same-y feeling.

This books is not like that. I really could have read this book in one sitting, but I just didn’t have time. I think I read it in two days, though. So I will pick out some random thoughts.

The story is full of a lot of unspoken peacefulness, and acceptance of things as they are, when they don’t seem particularly good. The first story in particular, “Something Like Happy”, grabbed me. There are so many secrets in this story, and they make me want to cozy up next to the quieter characters in the story, who include the narrator, Fiona, and Arthur McKechnie. The narrator’s sister, Marie, and Arthur’s brother, Stan, are dating, and Stan seems to be a volatile, typical bully character. Marie sort of is as well – but both are more complex than that. The town has a lot of the feeling of the town in My Antonia – somewhere with turbulence under the surface of strict rules that work for a lot of people. Those rules don’t work for Fiona or Arthur, and we don’t really know why, but they make the temporary escapes they can, until Arthur has to make a more serious escape. I love the way he describes the current in the swimming hole – a “bone deep … force with a shape of its own”, and

it felt like something that matched me exactly, the same shape and weight and volume, and it always seemed as if that something came to life the moment I stepped into the water.

The quietness is probably best summed up in this quote:

Unlike Marie, I didn’t want the earth to open and swallow me up, but at that moment I knew I was already starting to fade away – and it wasn’t such a bad feeling, after all, to be disappearing. … It wasn’t the kind of thing you see in films or on television, but it seemed good to me, as I stood there in the snow, vanishing imperceptibly into the life I had not chosen but would not refuse, now that I knew what it was.

The second story, “Slut’s Hair”, is a lot clearer on the consequences of actual unhappiness and domestic abuse – and is probably the only example I can recall of someone who is actually unhappy in this book. It is really creepy, and I won’t ruin it, but it is dark.

With the third story, “Peach Melba”, you pick up with what I would loosely characterise as the general theme of the book – I got the feeling that the characters live in their own rich internal world, which they appreciate, and yet they are deeply alone. Almost all of the characters are married, and in these situations, most writers would directly or inadvertently be painting a picture of someone who is unhappy and deeply lonely. Burnside manages to make these people deeply alive and alone – but not lonely. They may be even happy. Or something like happy, as it were.

“Peach Melba” starts with a great line: “I have forgotten most of my life so far.” It goes on in a similarly strong way: “This surprises me, sometimes, because I have enjoyed it so much: enjoyed it all, or most of it, enjoyed the summer days here in my tiny garden by the sea, enjoyed the oddly quiet companionship of marriage…” This doesn’t seem to be a poem about someone going back to remember an extraordinarily tragic scene from his childhood. But it is. Again, I won’t spoil it, but it is a brilliant study in his skill in maintaining lightness, beauty and aloneness. Check this out – from an aside in italics (I’m assuming this is the narrator but at times it reads like a quote from someone else):

There are choices we learn to make, and there is the matter of the soul, which operates beyond convention or common sense. The best fortunate a man can have is to choose with his soul, rather than with his heart or his head because, then, there is always a secret, there is always a place in his marrow that remains intact, sacred and untouchable, a noli me tangere place, like that shadowy place in the garden where Mary encountered Jesus, and didn’t even know who he was.

There was another part like that that I also liked, a lot:

Somewhere, in some virtual library, there is a book to which my life is one long commentary. Not, I suspect, Moby-Dick or Bleak House, or even How to Make Friends and Influence People. Maybe something more like Household Management, by Mrs Beeton, all recipes and tips on etiquette, the cure for croup or how to get dried bloodstains out of suede. What that book should contain is a matter of some importance to me: no scriptures – that goes without saying – but maybe the odd, more or less dubious, more or less true old wives’ tale, some fragments of history and geography, a few tables and logarithms, perhaps, and – of this I feel quite certain – several pages of nothing but lists. 

As I typed that, the radio started playing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”, and I realised that that quote makes me think of – and I hope you, dear Reader, will bear with me here – the part of You’ve Got Mail where Kathleen writes, “So much of what I see reminds me of something I read in a book, when shouldn’t it be the other way around?” I think a lot of us who read sometimes feel like that, and instead of using that as a way to berate us, I wonder if we should be happy, in the way that this character imagines, that there is a key somewhere. And it reminds me of Nabokov’s Pale Fire, which a friend is reading, and making me want to re-read. (Any paragraph you can link to YGM and PF is a good one.)

(A small negative note: I’m not sure I ever got comfortable with Peach Melba the dessert being the theme of this story – is it too cheesy? I never decided.)

I also really loved the story “The Cold Outside” – the characters are interesting in a quiet and non-intrusive way, and I wanted to know more about them (the way I did about all of the best characters int his book). Perhaps the sadness of the underlying plot of the story drew me in, but it is not a sad story. It is just a story that stares into the face of what it means to be alive and mortal, and does not flinch. There are astonishingly stark scenes in a dark car in this story, which I won’t get into for spoiler-related reasons, but for me the best parts of the story and book are like this:

… as I felt the silence slipping away, I tried to capture it all, to drink it all in, before Sall woke up and I wasn’t alone any more. This was my life, these were the times when I was true: in these half-hours here and there when I felt alone in the house, or those fleeting moments out on the road, when I opened a gate and crossed an empty farmyard, a stranger, even to myself, in the quiet of the afternoon.

I like the other stories, but they were less remarkable. “Sunburn” and “The Bell-Ringer” were both good and had a familiar feeling and tone by the time I read them. “The Deer Larder” is interesting and sort of creepy. “Godwit” and “A Winter’s Tale” feed off each other interestingly.

There are a couple of stories about older women preying on younger men, which is interesting – “Perfect and Private Things” and “Roccolo”. My least favourite story in the collection was the latter, which is quite dark and which I think perhaps I did not understand fully.

Overall, though, I did really like this book of stories, and parts of it (especially from “The Cold Outside”) have stuck in my head the past couple weeks. It has not completely changed my view of literature, so I am giving it 4/5.

I’d love to hear others’ thoughts if they have read it!


One thought on “REVIEW – John Burnside: Something Like Happy

  1. Pingback: Review: George Saunders, Tenth of December | bewhatwedo

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