Review by Andrew Crumey
Published in Financial Times
Jonathan Cape, £14.99
John Burnside is extremely good at being nasty. In parallel with his career as an acclaimed poet, the Scottish writer has also produced a series of novels highlighting life’s darker side, often involving violence and murder. Like a latter-day Jekyll and Hyde, Burnside can turn from verse that is luminous and visionary, to prose that keeps you awake at night. Glister is such a novel.
The setting is an unspecified town near a disused chemical works. It has a run-down “Innertown” and a leafier “Outertown”, and through the efforts of developer Brian Smith, who appears to run the whole place, it has become known as “Homeland”. Already the names are enough to suggest the bigger allegorical picture: this is a Kafkaesque scenario where the usual rules may not apply. Boys have been disappearing from the town – perhaps abducted, or else swallowed up by some dreadful mystery inside the old works.
The first-person voice of teenager Leonard Wilson opens the book. “This place where I am has been given many names… Heaven, Hell, Tir Na Nog, the Dreamtime.” Is this to be a dead-narrator novel, like Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones? Or is the place Leonard speaks of the town itself: an afterworld like that of Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman? Even by the end of this absorbing novel it is still not entirely clear.
A policeman plays a prominent role, naturally enough since this is a missing-person story. Constable John Morrison is troubled by a religious conscience and a wife given to inexplicable seizures; he is Brian Smith’s puppet, aware that “some evil [is] being perpetrated”, but powerless to investigate. When a dead boy (not Leonard) is found hanging in the woods, Morrison is ordered to conceal the crime. The boy’s parents, filled with the indolence that infects the whole town, hardly even care that he’s gone.
The plot looks set to continue in much the same third-person way, gradually telling us more about Smith and his evil doings – but no, Leonard’s voice returns, “Still there and gone away at the same time… in the everlasting present.” In what turns out to be the book’s longest section, he describes his life in the town - his relationship with his girlfriend, his love of books and old movies – told as if happening now, yet with an unnerving sense of retrospection: the everlasting present of wherever he now is. Although Leonard is a teenager, there is something much older about his voice. Even his cultural references suggest an earlier generation: not many of today’s fifteen-year-olds have heard of Groucho Marx, John Wayne or Dorothy Lamour.
The constant subverting of reader expectation could easily become frustrating, but it has the opposite effect, providing a continuing element of surprise in what is, in other respects, a simple story. Leonard gets involved with a group of kids who inflict terrible vengeance on a loner and suspected paedophile they assume to be the murderer. He meets another figure, the Moth Man, whose woodland excursions and mind-altering herbal tea could put him in the frame too. Ultimately, Leonard gets to discover what goes on inside the chemical works, where we find Morrison bound and gagged before an infernal device inscribed with the word “glister”.
Nothing is ever resolved or explained; as Leonard says, “This isn’t that kind of story.” It is not logic that propels this book, but rather a constant sense of destabilisation: unexpected shifts of viewpoint, and the strangely flippant tone of a boy bearing witness to terrible events. In the end we are left with the resonant sense of a book whose centre is nowhere, but whose circumference is extraordinarily large.