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Shotgun Lovesongs – Nikolas Butler (Review)

‘Here, I can hear things, the world throbs differently, silence thrums like a chord strummed eons ago, music in the aspen trees and in the firs and the burr oaks and even in the fields of drying corn.’

I picked up Shotgun Lovesongs because of the cover and bought it because the blurb intrigued me. Four childhood friends – Henry (Hank), Ronnie, Lee, and Kit – from Little Wing, Wisconsin are now in their early thirties and a lot of life has happened since their unfettered, simple days hanging out on a grain silo and watching sunsets and sunrises. A wedding in the group brings them all back and old feelings are unburied and a secret threatens to destroy a long-term marriage as well as a friendship.

I mean, what’s not to love?

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There’s a particular sense of charm reading a book about small-town life. And in recent times I’ve really enjoyed joining Kent Haruf and his characters in the fictional Holt County in Colorado. So, I was looking forward to a similar experience here. One that seemed possible when this story began.

Though, as soon as the first short chapter ended, I was confused about who it was that was talking, because the next one seemed to have a different narrator. It took me a few minutes to realise that the first initial of the narrator’s name headed the chapter. There’s five narrators in total (the four friends and Henry’s wife Beth who has known all of them almost as long as they have known each other) and there are small alternating chapters with shifting viewpoints.

Alright so far? Yes.

After a few chapters, I could tell this was a slow-burner (which I love when done well) and I settled down for the ride (incidentally I read part of this on a plane and at an airport). Only to have the creeping realisation that it wasn’t slow simmer as much as meandering. There was no plot that I could discern and this was a problem because there was otherwise nothing really at stake in the lives of these characters for a seemingly character-centric story. It was all too bland. Which made the bizarre occurences in the final third of the book and the attempts at adding tension and drama even before (that damning “secret” was just trying too hard) feel really forced and farfetched, and the characters’ reactions even more so.

I’d have been willing to overlook all of this if I had cared at all about these people. But, despite my best efforts, I just, unfortunately, didn’t. The characters never grew past their tropes – the good-hearted, steady, salt-of-the-earth farmer, the genuine, well-meaning, talented but messed up musical star whose fame takes him all the world just to come back home because it has all he ever wanted, the alcoholic but golden-hearted former rodeo star etc – and we were told about them rather than being shown them and their personalities. It didn’t help that all the characters sounded almost the same in their first-person narration, and more like the writer’s voice than their own. Too self-conscious, at times pretentious, even flowery and attempting to be insightful. And whatever dialogue there was read unnatural.

And gods the cliches and the dropping of brand names to evoke a sense of “real America” (which totally back-fired, by the way). There’s some beautiful descriptions and the writer clearly has a way with words, but spare me the overkill and the going overboard with purple prose without purpose. Instead of a love-letter to the American Midwest, this read to me as too righteous about the magic of small towns.

I am disappointed because I so wanted to like this, and the blurb as well as the glowing reviews about it made me believe that I would. That said, I would still be willing to give another book by this writer a chance.

‘Sometimes that is what forgiveness is anyway, a deep sigh.’


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