With eleven collections of poetry under his belt, including The Asylum Dance, which won the 2000 Whitbread Poetry award, John Burnside is a poet of long standing. He’s also a novelist. Glister is his eighth novel. Add in the Scottish Art Council Non-Fiction Book of the Year, A Lie About My Father, and we’re talking about an author with an authoritative back catalogue. None of which meant anything to me. I came to Glister, purely and simply, because the man is sharing a stage with Alice Thompson at next month’s EBF (Edinburgh Book Festival).
I approached the novel with trepidation. Poet-novelists sometimes misfire with me, particularly when their preoccupation with language overtakes the narrative drive as in Anne Michaels Fugitive Pieces. But when the two harmonise as in Karen Connelly’s Lizard Cage, then wow!
So I had slightly conflicting expectations. How would the language of a poet reconcile with that rusty old ship on the dust jacket?
Set in post-industrial Innertown, a community that remains on the polluted, poisoned site of an abandoned chemical plant, Glister is at first glance a crime novel. 5 adolescent boys have gone missing. The official line is that they have simply left. But one person knows differently but he is unable to do anything because he is heavily compromised by his actions when the first boy disappeared.
Even so, the townspeople realise that all is not as it seems – in particular, the teenagers. They seek comfort from loveless sex and ganging together, scouting through the wasteland of the plant, hunting and killing the rats and other mutated lifeforms they find. They are feral animals themselves and their violence escalating until, triggered by the disappearance of another child, they become a pack and hunt down the one they decide is to blame.
The main narrator is Leonard, fourteen and three-quarters, a complex character. Abandoned by his mother at the age of ten, he is older than his years. Strangely alien in some aspects of his mindset yet quite endearing in others. (For a start he is a reader!) It’s for lust of a bad woman that he ends up participating in the crime that ends the first half of the novel … a set piece that is chillingly graphic – Burnside displaying his masterly control of language and other writerly techniques in quite unexpected ways. The scene effectively foreshadowed in the ruins of the chemical plant when Leonard refuses to … no, I’m not telling.
So far, seedy in places but a firm . The perfect setup for a second half full of justice and redemption.
Only Burnside’s not writing a traditional crime narrative and justice and redemption are not valid outcomes in a twisted world where corruption reigns supreme. Finer feelings, regret and personal sacrifice on behalf of others, pure vanity. The wicked continue to prosper. And that poor policeman (and yes, I found him sympathetic) who stood to one side at the start pays the highest price. His terrifying fate, an analogy for that which will befall us all if we continue to sit back and allow big business to continue polluting our world. It’s
the sin of omission, the sin of averting our gaze and not seeing what was going on in front of our eyes. The sin of not wanting to know; the sin of knowing everything and not doing anything about it. The sin of knowing things on paper but refusing to know them in our hearts.
It’s a metaphor on a grand scale, executed with malevolent unadulterated horror.
Hell, it’s bleak. Hell, it’s hell on earth ….. and then, at complete odds with the tone, the feel, the gritty realism of what has preceded it, there’s a chapter entitled “Heaven” and events turn vague, surreal and mystical. Essential if Burnside is to inject some Glister into his narrative but so incredibly ambiguous and deeply, deeply dissatisfying. After all that dark brooding brilliance, the yearnings of the poet won over the judgement of the novelist. Deduct 2-stars with immediate effect.