Jacob and Edna have fallen on hard times. They haven’t lost everything the way others have, but they have lost enough. When one of their hens stops laying eggs, it seems like the final straw. Jacob is determined to solve the mystery. What he discovers is as heartbreaking as it is revelatory. This is just one of the remarkable stories in Burning Bright, an award-winning collection that confirms why Ron Rash has won comparisons with John Steinbeck, Cormac McCarthy and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It is rare that an author can capture the complexities of a place as though it were a person, as Ron Rash does with the rugged, brutal landscape of the Appalachian Mountains. At the same time, again and again he conjures characters that live long in the mind after their stories have been told.
Regular readers will be well aware of my abiding love for the short story genre so I was delighted when this collection came up for review. The keen-eyed amongst you will also remember that earlier in the year I reviewed Ron Rash’s novel Serena for Vulpes Libris, a book to which my reaction was decidedly mixed.
Well, I’m more than happy to discover that Rash’s real forte is far and away the short story form, and you won’t, I believe, find a better collection than this one this year, or probably for many a year. It simply shines and has the kind of literary, intellectual and emotional power that grabs you by the throat and won’t let go. Not only that but the writing is strong, subtle, precise and perfectly suited to its sometimes painful subject matter.
His stories range from the small compromises, secrets and traumas of marriage (Hard Times, Falling Star and Burning Bright) to the despair and desperation brought on by poverty (Dead Confederates), what happens when drugs destroy a family (Back of Beyond) and how a superstitious childhood never really lets you go (The Corpse Bird). But most important of all, and in a very high proportion of these stories, the startlingly human focus is on the difference one act of mercy from a surprising quarter can make in the most difficult of circumstances. Make no mistake; these are tough people living in a tough and merciless environment, but the inclusion of mercy, however small and slight, brings an essential sense of hope and enlightenment to some very harsh tales.
Amongst these frankly excellent (no, I’m not exaggerating that) short stories with not a stinker in sight, I have to mention two in particular which caught my attention.
Lincolnites is the story of young mother Lily who has to make several traumatic decisions when a soldier comes calling. The subtle quality of the writing with the slow rise of the tension between the two characters is expertly done, and the denouement both powerful and strangely elegant. I’d more than happily read another story about Lily.
But the absolute star of the collection for its achievement of story-telling perfection has to be Return. This tale of a soldier returning home from battle and remembering the death of an enemy is a tour de force of literary fiction and an utter pleasure to read. I simply cannot tell you how good it is, but suffice it to say that I believe I have only read three perfect short stories in my life, and count this as one of them. For interest, the other two are Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain (from Close Range: Wyoming Stories) and Adam Haslett’s The Beginnings of Grief (from You Are Not A Stranger Here).
So it appears that towards the end of this reviewing year, I’m coming across some stonkingly good books. Having previously advised you to rush out and buy Evelio Rosero’s Good Offices, I can only strongly suggest that whilst you’re in the shop, you pick this one up as well. I promise you won’t regret it.
Burning Bright, Canongate 2011. ISBN: 9 780857 861153
Also available as an eBook
[Anne is always on the look-out for the perfect short story and is delighted beyond measure when she finds one. She doesn’t think she’s written one for herself yet but she keeps trying.]
The history of human communication dates back to the earliest era of humanity. Symbols were developed about 30,000 years ago, and writing about 7,000.