A poet with 11 published collections to his name, along with six novels, John Burnside is a master of descriptive prose, particularly when it comes to fleshing out the subtleties of the natural world. One of the many ironies of GLISTER is that while Burnside’s evocation of the novel’s geographical setting is rich in detail, the world it describes – ‘Homeland’ – is a headland devastated by a disused chemical factory, the economy now in ruins, the environment curdled, its soil and woods and sea left lifeless.
Post-apocalyptic in tone, GLISTER tells of a community enduring a living hell. Multiple narrators, some third-person, one first-person, contribute to a tale of emotional and psychological paralysis, as the inhabitants of Innertown avert their collective gaze from the ongoing disappearance of a succession of teenage boys. Morrison, the hapless local police officer, is reduced to tending a shrine in ‘the poisoned wood’, while at home his wife Alice nurtures a breakdown that allows her abdicate her responsibilities. Brian Smith, the Outertown entrepreneur who owns the community body and soul, may be somehow responsible for the disappearances; but those who still care enough to contemplate the horrifying consequences of absolute corruption, including the 15-year-old bibliophile Leonard, are powerless to penetrate Smith’s inner sanctum.
Despite Burnside’s sharply observed vignettes, the cumulative effect of multiple narrative voices is to create a disorientating, meandering story. This is Burnside’s intention. GLISTER is a bewildering, Kafkaesque howl of anguish for lost innocence, in which Burnside explicitly references Melville’s MOBY-DICK while implicitly evoking Dante’s DIVINE COMEDY. The notion that a metaphorical great white whale of redemption is available only via a whole new circle of hell, one created to cater for those responsible for mankind’s rapacious abuse of the planet and its denizens, human and animal, is a sobering one, but Burnside refuses to take the easy option by pointing a finger at any one individual, or even the Brian Smiths of this world. We are all, the subtext suggests, equally guilty of abnegating our responsibilities, condemned by ourselves and our neighbours and the fragile blue ball on which we live. Or would be, had we the will to call ourselves to account.
Burnside does offer that faint prospect of redemption, courtesy of the spectral Mothman who befriends the lost soul that is Leonard, but even at the finale the notion of hope is shot through with a shocking pragmatism. Accused of an apparent indifference to the fate of the teenage boys, the police officer Morrison protests that the soul is not ‘intrinsically good’; rather, he says, “ … the soul is wet and dark, a creature that takes up residence in the human body like a parasite and feeds on it, a creature hungry for experience and power and possessed of an inhuman joy that cares nothing for its host, but lives, as it must live, in perpetual, disfigured longing.”
It is a ‘disfigured longing’ that glisters just beneath the surface of this sinuously compelling novel, the ancient, inarticulate desire to have the promise of life finally delivered, however compromised that promise might be by the dirty, poisonous business of living. Just as the chemical fall-out from the disused plant will pollute Burnside’s mythical Homeland for generations to come, GLISTER will radiate darkly in your mind long after it is done. – Declan Burke
This review was first published in the Sunday Business Post
“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.