Tag Archives: Beneath the Bonfire

Beneath the Bonfire by Nickolas Butler: A rare short stories review

Cover imageI think this may be the first short story collection I’ve reviewed here. There’ve been a few linked sets – Judy Chicurel’s If I’d known You were Going to Be This Beautiful… springs to mind as does Sara Taylor’s The Shore – but Nickolas Butler’s is the only one I can think of filled with standalone pieces. I know many readers will tell me I’m missing out – and I have tried – but my natural inclination is for a longer piece of work. I do make exceptions for the likes of Helen Dunmore, and Butler’s Shotgun Lovesongs was such a fine piece of writing that Beneath the Bonfire just had to be read.

It’s made up of ten stories – some a mere few pages others lengthier, all firmly rooted in smalltown America. In ‘Rainwater’ a grandfather remembers how to help his grandson discover the world when it seems the boy’s wild mother may not return. ‘Morels’ reunites three old friends, one of whom has a smart new life in the city, but things go horribly wrong. In ‘Leftovers’ a man watches his wife clear out his dead mother’s fridge and comes to a momentous conclusion. ‘Sweet Light Crude’ sees an ageing environmentalist take an oil man hostage, knowing that it will be his last hurrah. A friendship is tested to breaking point in ‘Sven and Lily’. These five brief outlines give a flavour of the terrain covered by Butler’s collection which ranges far and wide through the universalities of life.

Many of Butler’s themes will be familiar to readers of his novel: male friendship, nature and our sometimes troubled relationship with it, chance, the compromises and collusions of smalltown life, and, of course, love. His writing is often striking, polished phrases are slipped in with ease: ‘his sunburn now a suit of pain’; ’Her face had been made into a jigsaw puzzle’; ‘His viciousness and kindness meshed together to form their own cage’ – are a smattering of the ones that stood out for me. There’s a wonderful image describing a couple grown apart when the husband imagines calling his wife from a payphone, listening to her answering then hearing her walking away without hanging up, leaving him there until he grows old in his callbox. Another gorgeous example comes from the eponymous story as a young woman swimming underneath a frozen lake sees the bonfire of Christmas trees above, unsure if she can trust the man she’s come to love. It’s as fine a collection as fans of Shotgun Lovesongs could hope for. If I had to pick a favourite it would be ‘Apples’ about a happily married couple, together for many years, but I’m a hopeless romantic.

Books to Look Out For in July 2015: Part 2

Cover imageTopping my wish list for this second July selection is Sarah Moss’s Signs for Lost Children billed as the third part of a loosely linked trilogy which began with Night Waking. Bodies of Light, the second instalment, appeared on the Wellcome Trust Book Prize shortlist for its theme of nineteenth century women in medicine. This one picks up Ally and Tom’s story from there. Newly married they face separation as Ally practices as a doctor at Truro’s asylum and Tom builds lighthouses in Japan. Bodies of Light was one of my favourite books of 2014 so I’m particularly eager for this one.

Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life was a huge bestseller in Germany, apparently. It’s about Andreas who arrives in the Austrian Alps as a small boy and stays there for the rest of his life, leaving just once to fight in the Second World War.The publishers have somewhat ambitiously compared it to Stoner. If it’s only half as good as John Williams’ rediscovered gem it will be well worth your time.

Paula McGrath’s Generation has a much wider stretch covering eighty years, three generationsCover image and three continents. Discontented with her life in Ireland, Aine takes her six-year-old daughter to an organic farm near Chicago. Things don’t go quite as planned and the events of that summer will have far-reaching consequences. It’s billed as ‘a short novel that contains a huge amount’, a neat little description that snagged my attention.

Vanessa Tait’s The Looking Glass House could go either way. It’s a re-imagining of the origins of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Tait is the great-granddaughter of Alice Lidell which gives the novel an intriguing edge although you may feel that Alice has been over exposed given the brouhaha around Robert Douglas-Fairhurst’s The Story of Alice earlier this year. I’ve yet to read that but the two could well be complementary.

Cover imageMy last choice for July is an uncharacteristic one for me but it’s by an author I’ve banged on about ceaselessly – at least some readers may think so – since the publication of his first novel, Shotgun Lovesongs. I’d love to tell you that there’s a new Nickolas Butler novel in the offing but sadly that’s not to be. Instead his collection of short stories, Beneath the Bonfire, is to be published this summer and I’m sure it will be wonderful.

That’s it for July hardbacks. If you missed the first part you can find it here and a click on a title will take you to Waterstones website for a fuller synopsis.