Glister by John Burnside

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Glister by John Burnside

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: Missing children, the secrets their passing generates, and a noxious industrial past all conspire to create a ruined town peopled by ruined characters. This is not Burnside's best but for the right reader will be a sterling work.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 272 Date: May 2009
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 978-0099507840

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A few years ago a policeman had his Halloween - and his life - ruined by the discovery of a dead boy in the woods. Finding himself just not up to scratch when it comes to dealing with such things, he retreats behind the local Mister Big type who got him his job in the first place. Fast forward to the present, and four more boys have gone missing. It's not the only thing that is hanging over the town like a lethal cloud.

Whatever the official name of this town might be, we know it as Homeland, and we see just how ruined it has been by the birth, toxic life, and death of the local chemical plant. The works has started to kill off an entire generation of the town, and left a huge scar on the promontory the town shares it with. The woods are poisoned, rumours of mutated new species are rife, and the town is practically reduced to total unemployment and isolation now the plant has stopped doing whatever it was it once did.

The only lively spirit around seems to be Leonard, who narrates this book, partly in the first, partly in the third person. He's getting to know a ripe amount of foreign literature, compares people to Polish film stars, and knows a lot more than most of his peers. He might just get to learn what really happened to the boys - including his best friend - who disappeared.

I nearly had a problem with the third person narrative half here. It came down almost as a catalogue of misery and dreariness, which for me ruined John Burnside's short stories, Burning Elvis. Children grow up ignorant of their parent's age. Penfriends have to be mass murderers. People left, right and centre have an almost Asperger's type of failure to reason, communicate, or enjoy life, with other people and their company. Too many people are scarred through car crashes.

It's an ugly world in Burnside books, and events can get ugly - if the writing never descends to that. There was something about the style here that saved the book - it came over as almost clipped, a very defined, refined, near-scientific sort of documentation. It never made me too aware of it - or Burnside's other career of poet of note, but the voice really got to show that however ugly the town and the death and chemicals that hang over it was, it would always be worth reading about.

There is too, a special style to the structure of the book, without giving too much away - the narration fits very well between the third and first person chapters. The intrigue of the children is given us immediately and not resolved for some time, and the story compels on almost every page. It lightens up what could have been a dreary book, and it keeps this short, absorbing read from ever getting too heavy.

Beyond a couple of events, some rough underage sex and language, there is little to put the reader off here. I do wish there was more innocence in Burnside's books (I admit there was very little in his first, the brilliant The Dumb House, but the results there were too good to let that worry me), and I think the set-up of the catalogue of horrors was a bit too much despite all the results of the brilliantly vivid chemical plant and its effects, but on the whole this dreamy melange of gritty urbanism with poetic crime puzzler* will appeal to the right reader very highly.

We at the Bookbag must thank the nice Vintage people for our review copy.

For more odd darkness in a ruined post-industrial town, we heartily recommend Blackmoor by Edward Hogan.

  • By which I mean we know immediately who the baddy is, but that doesn't matter.

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