Lyrics of the lonely

Something Like Happy, by John Burnside, Jonathan Cape, RRP£16.99, 256 pages

John Burnside is best known as a poet, winning both the Forward and TS Eliot prizes for his last collection, Black Cat Bone (2011). He’s an equally accomplished short story writer, and in Something Like Happy he chronicles lives in which pain has been accumulating quietly.

Each of these sly expositions of human suffering turns to face something frightening: the disavowal of hope in a dead-end town; subtle but devastating rejection by a lover; and shocking acts of violence.

Yet it is Something Like Happy’s cautious theme that these unsatisfactory lives can shift – often in a direction that is far from enticing, but represents change nonetheless.

The titular story is narrated by Fiona, a young woman working as a bank clerk. Her tale has the same fatiguing veneer as her job – living quietly in a small industrial town, she and her sister have different interests in two brothers, Arthur and Stan McKechnie, the former a loner misfit, the latter a thuggish bully. The brothers struggle towards a tragic clash, as Arthur seeks a way to escape the town’s expectations of him.

If life goes slowly in this place, so does Burnside’s prose: the narrator’s summer trips to the old swimming hole release a lyrical voice that is elsewhere restrained: “half an hour or so in the water, not really swimming so much as hanging there, suspended in the rumour of coolness that rose from the depths below”.

Fiona is not free but “suspended” – although by the story’s close she is “vanishing imperceptibly into the life I had not chosen but would not refuse” – and this state, she says, is “not quite happy ... but not unhappy either”. Though she accepts this compromise, it is a chilling prospect to surrender an identity along with its accompanying fear and hope.

There are frequent, failed attempts to vanquish loneliness. In “The Future of Snow”, two men are grieving for the same woman, Beth, who slipped in the snow and perished: her husband Frank has dipped into madness, and her lover, who tells the story, has not recovered either.

The narrator says of Frank, who is often shunned for his odd behaviour: “I’d rather steer clear of him myself, for reasons the town doesn’t know about”. Here is another suffocating town, in which people’s connections to each other are secret or shameful.

In “Slut’s Hair”, Burnside makes us witnesses to horror. Janice is imprisoned in unhappy marriage to Rob, who, impatient with his wife’s persistent toothache, fetches pliers and, after administering whisky as “anaesthetic”, pulls out the offending tooth: “By the end, there was blood everywhere, on him and on her face and T-shirt.”

It’s fantastically gruesome, and there is a complex psychological corollary: alone, Janice catches sight of a “mouse”, probably imagined, in the kitchen. It is her secret, and when Rob returns: “she knew, with a bright surge of relief, that he wouldn’t find the mouse”.

Are such tiny pieces of relief worth anything? Burnside doesn’t deliver a straight verdict, but the ambiguity is brilliant.

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