Fiction 368584_1

Published on April 19th, 2013


Something Like Happy by John Burnside

A collection of short stories from prize-winning author John Burnside.

Read Something Like Happy on the New Yorker website

Paul Dunn, The Times

The Deer Larder is a perfect ghost story for the internet age. The narrator receives a series of misdirected e-mails telling of spooky happenings on the island of Jura. Thinking that it is a cyber hoax, he fails to intervene. Then a press clipping reveals the truth … In that story, Burnside writes of those surreal fragments found on the internet: “Sad little narratives of trouble and desire, of achievement and loss.” That description would serve these stories well: nothing cries out to be longer or outstays its welcome. Each is a perfectly pitched, perfectly weighted gem.

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Hannah McGill, Scotland on Sunday

These are not mere flights of fluency; we are very evidently in the hands of a storyteller. Burnside has an eye for the dark ironies, the devastating reversals and the bleak secrets at play in unsung lives, and an ear for the nuances of communication. He’s also disarmingly good on joy (notoriously harder to tackle convincingly than angst), whether the headrush of sexual infatuation, or the intense sensual impact of a perfectly prepared ice cream sundae.

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Brian Morton, The Independent

These are Scottish versions of the stories of Raymond Carver, another poet-storyteller, but John Burnside makes more happen and with a kind of bleary intoxicated joy Carver was rarely capable of.

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Layla Sanai, The Independent on Sunday

The cruel former beauty in “Roccolo”, who delights in luring young boys to witness her acts of sadism, shows traces of the paedophilia that has threaded through the author’s previous work. Her chilling equanimity and self-delusion while recounting her acts of torture conjures memories of one of Burnside’s most vile protagonists, the Mengele-like character in his first novel, The Dumb House. Her wanton evil makes “Roccolo” the most disturbing story in the collection, and one that is hard to keep reading.

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Tom Adair, The Scotsman

In two of the stories – “The Deer Larder” and “Roccolo” – the endings feel flawed, so keen to surprise that they seem contrived, their dramatic weight in disproportion to what has led to each culmination. However, two tales which strike and impale are the five-page “Lost Someone”, and “Godwit”, with cross-over characters mooching beady-eyed in the foreground like birds of prey, an awful incipient sense of violence being unshakeable throughout.

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Caroline Jowett, The Daily Express

He shines his spotlight into his characters’ lives illuminating their inner thoughts and secret selves to create a resonance with the reader.

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Margaret Drabble, New Statesman

There is much familiar Burnside landscape here – the harsh beauty of dune-grass and headland, the casual and deadly knifing in the pub, the domestic violence (most vividly evoked in a terrifying story called “Slut’s Hair”), the truck driver’s lonely road, the treacherous friend, the sad affair. “Fallings from us, vanishings”: and yet, as in Words – worth, there are intimations of immortality, memories and moments, which make these stories more magical than lowering.

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Christina Appleyard, The Daily Mail

All of them are written with the same spellbindng language that make them mini thrillers with unguessable endings.

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Jerome Boyd Maunsell, Times Literary Supplement

Burnside’s is not quite an art of the everyday, although it captures, with extraordinary intensity, the ordinary beauty in everyday life. Some of these stories tip towards fear or horror, while the best ones fuse the author’s impulses towards the mystical and macabre with a steady sense of reality.

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Francesca Angelini, The Sunday Times

The flickering borders between the imagined and the real, and the metaphysical issues of existence, are themes familiar from Burnside’s past novels and poems. In this collection, he proves himself equally masterly when it comes to writing short stories, capturing entire lives and landscapes in just a few thousand words of careful, nuanced prose. 

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Stuart Kelly, The Guardian

Something Like Happy, his first collection of short stories since Burning Elvis, puts the reader into familiarly unfamiliar territory, but in an unsettling way. For those unacquainted with his sublimely terrifying oeuvre, this is the place to start.

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Robert Hanks, The Daily Telegraph

The 13 stories in Something Like Happy offer all the customary satisfactions of Burnside’s writing – anomie, menace, flashes of violence and cruelty, hallucinations and snow – but multiplied, so that it sometimes feels as though what you are reading is not a story, an exercise of the imagination, so much as another iteration of a process … Taken together, these stories suggest that Burnside has reached some kind of impasse: he needs to find new tones and new images. But even his most routine stories have beauty and intelligence: he is never less than something like brilliant. 

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Natalie Whittle, The Financial Times

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 … the ambiguity is brilliant.

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Sam Kitchener,  Literary Review

Their stories read as though they have benefited from some successful therapy. It ’s not the sudden catch of a Joycean epiphany, but a steadier, more persistent line in redemptive insight. Maybe a bit too much like Buddhist mindfulness, for my taste. This mostly results in elegant noticing – stars that look ‘fine, local, and warm and brave in the gathering darkness’ – but it can be overdone. Observations are put back into the sieve and worked towards unprompted refinement.

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