You read a sentence like ‘Eva laughed back, but she wasn’t happy’, and your heart sinks. It appears in ‘The Bell-ringer’, placed about halfway through this, John Burnside’s second collection of short stories. Eva is stuck within, if not a loveless marriage, then a love-light one; her sister-in-law, Martha, has just confessed to having an affair, and Eva disapproves even as she recognises an image of her own sadness. The properly admired short stories of Chekhov and Carver have elevated accounts of this sort of ordinary unhappiness into a high art, but what once felt bracing and democratising easily becomes well worn, and short fictions featuring observant women in stagnant marriages, or physically and emotionally remote communities, begin to stir dark thoughts.
It is a relief, then, that although themes of loneliness and isolation are ever present, this collection isn’t cod dirty realism. There are a number of unhappy marriages, in ‘Slut’s Hair’, ‘Perfect and Private Things’, ‘The Cold Outside’, and ‘The Future of Snow’, most of them set in Burnside’s native