Review by Susan Osborne
I hope you’ll excuse me if this review reads more like a pean of praise – or even a gush – than a hard-nosed critque: Nickolas Butler’s debut Shotgun Lovesongs was one of my favourite books of 2014. It’s a beautifully executed American smalltown novel – a particular weakness of mine – about friendship and love which often overlap.
Lee, Henry, Ronny and Kip have grown up together in Little Wing, Wisconsin. Now on the cusp of middle age, they’ve known each other since they were eight years old. They have a bond almost closer than family but, as ever with friendships, some are more tightly bound than others – Henry and Lee are the closest, despite the fame that Lee’s successful music career has brought; Ronny idolises Lee who has looked out for him since his rodeo career was scuppered by a head injury; Kip, a savvy Chicago stockbroker who has recently moved back with big plans to renovate the old grain mill, is on the sidelines and resents it. The novel opens with Kip and Felicia’s wedding, a little too flash and citified for Wisconsin. It’s narrated by the four friends and by Beth, Henry’s wife and the love of his life. Their stories unfold in a series of flashbacks played out against the lives they lead now. Firmly rooted in Little Wing, Henry runs the family farm while Beth looks after their two children. Their lives couldn’t be more different from Lee’s, who spends his time touring, lusted after by beautiful women and yearning for home. Ronny struggles with his health, kicking a little against the protectiveness that feels like being wrapped in cotton wool. Kip has come back to Little Wing more to show them all what he’s achieved than for love of the place.
Choosing five different narrative voices is quite a challenge to set yourself – too easy for them to sound samey or clash gratingly – but Butler carries it off beautifully, drawing his readers into each of his characters’ lives. About a third of the way through, heartbreak appears on the horizon, and although it may not come in quite the way you expect Butler’s writing is powerful enough to make his readers feel it keenly. I’ve never been to the Midwest – hardly a tourist destination – but he made me want to see it. His quietly lyrical descriptions can only be described as romantic: he writes like a man in love with Wisconsin. I wasn’t at all surprised to see that the film rights had been sold but sorry that Fox Searchlight had bought them. What this books needs is an indie film company, one which has the courage to keep the grittiness rather than turn it into the lush melodrama which Butler’s deft writing neatly avoids. It’s a gorgeous, tender novel, beautifully written. I’m already looking forward to his next.
Susan Osborne blogs at A Life in Books (www.alifeinbooks.co.uk) Never, ever leave home without a book.
Nickolas Butler, Shotgun Lovesongs, (Picador: London, 2015) 978-1447238188, 256 pp., paperback.