Waking Up In Toytown by John Burnside

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Waking Up In Toytown by John Burnside

Category: Autobiography
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Jill Bone
Reviewed by Jill Bone
Summary: One man's quest to become normal. An introspective but fascinating journey.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 272 Date: January 2011
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 978-0099507833

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After years of alcoholism and borderline insanity, John Burnside decides to become normal. This involves moving to Surrey, working in an office and settling into a numbing daily routine he hopes will prevent him drifting back towards bad habits. These memoirs chronicle the failure of his bid for normality and subsequent disillusionment with the project. It's a solipsistic account but the writing is powerful and it draws you in.

The quest for a 'Surbiton of the mind', entailing no highs nor lows of emotion, proves elusive right from the beginning: a heavy drinking work colleague tries to convince him to murder his wife, he becomes involved with a hedonistic mother of three but finds he cares more for the children. Occasional glimpses of what he's searching for come through his work at the Ministry of Agriculture, producing simple data collection programs he knows will never be used: 'It had no purpose and so it was done for its own sake, like art, or flirting.' Burnside evokes the banality of office life very well, which in the main he finds desperately boring. Conversations with co-workers remain forced and superficial and the situation starts to feel unreal. Predictably, the lure of the subsidized work bar becomes too much to resist.

Needless to say, things take a grimmer turn after John returns to drink - there follows a disastrous new job in 'the enormous room' where the insurance-types he is forced to rub shoulders with compound his sense of alienation, and then he falls in love with a schoolgirl. Parallel to all this is the development of Burnside the poet, a fascinating aspect of the book. Poetry is seen as a way to wring order and truth from chaotic day-to-day experience, and he does find some peace of mind in the end. I loved the intimacy of Waking Up In Toytown and the way it brings the reader in on the author's personal journey. It has piqued my interest in his other work and I will definitely look out for John Burnside's poetry and fiction in the future.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

Further reading suggestion: If this book appeals then try The Memory Chalet by Tony Judt.

Buy Waking Up In Toytown by John Burnside at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Waking Up In Toytown by John Burnside at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy Waking Up In Toytown by John Burnside at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Waking Up In Toytown by John Burnside at Amazon.com.


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