Jul/Aug 2008 Book Reviews

A Visit to the Dark and Darkly Beautiful

John Burnside.

Jonathan Cape. 2008. 255 pp.
ISBN: 978-0-224-08074-3

Reviewed by Ann Skea

Buy now from Amazon! Leonard, who tells us this story, is fourteen-and-three-quarters, bright, street-wise and cynical. He is also a voracious reader, starved for writing which is not, as he puts it, "...crap, romances and thrillers and cowboy stuff," or "...folkloric hemstitching or whatever." He has read, he says (and we have no reason not to believe him) Conrad, Melville, Hemingway and even Proust. This makes Leonard's story-telling far more imaginative and interesting than most. And, from the beginning, he makes it clear that his way of seeing the world is just one way, and that truth in any story is as slippery as memories, "always shifting" and unreliable. So, whilst Leonard tells most of the story we also have chapters told, it seems, by a narrator with privileged knowledge of the lives, emotions, hopes and fears of many of the people in Leonard's story, and these have their own truth and reality.

Leonard's world, however, is bleak and sickly. Innertown, where he lives, grew up around a chemical plant and most of its inhabitants once worked there. Now, the plant is closed, the land around it poisoned, and many of the people physically or mentally sick, in spite of official claims that they were never exposed to anything dangerous. Local youths roam the crumbling, empty buildings of the chemical plant. There are rumours of deformed animals on the shore and in the waters around it. And most disturbing of all, five teenage boys, including Leonard's best friend, have vanished. Everyone suspects that they have been murdered but no-one is willing to talk about that: the conveniently accepted story, instead, is that the boys each ran away from home.

It seems that Morrison, the local policeman, knows what happened to at least one of the boys but is hiding this information. Morrison's eventual punishment is horrific, but Leonard, by this stage assures us that Morrison is guilty and that the punishment will be his salvation.

Others suffer, too. Leonard unwillingly becomes part of a gang which has decided that a local man, a socially awkward loner who has nursed his sick mother until her death, is a paedophile and a murderer. Leonard is ultimately responsible for his "salvation," too. Yet it is not Leonard who is the "necessary angel"—the "angel of death"—in this story, but a man Leonard calls "The Moth Man," an ecologist who turns up in the district every so often to catch moths, and with whom Leonard forms an unlikely friendship.

John Burnside's story-telling is compelling. Through Leonard, he explores the hinterland of death, the pure bright light which many of the book's character experience in various ways at the moment of death. This is what Leonard calls The Glister: "Heaven, Hell, the Tira Na Nog, the Dreamtime." It is the threshold of death which Leonard himself first experiences when playing sexual strangling games with the girl Elspeth, whose own self-image is so fragile that for her, sex has become self-affirmation—a need totally devoid of love or affection. But the Glister is also the place from which Leonard tells the story, a place which seems to be accessible through some kind of portal in the chemical plant, and it is the place where, in Leonard's view, every story begins and ends.

Love in this book is fleeting and unsatisfying. Leonard's terminally ill father loved his wife and was broken by her desertion. Leonard, who was the last to see her, hides any love he may have had for her under a hard carapace. Morrison, too, loved his wife, but she was contemptuous of his weakness. Leonard thinks he may be in love with Eddie, in spite of her addled brains, but she betrays him.

Burnside is a masterly story-teller. The world and the people in Glister are instantly recognizable and this makes this a deeply disturbing book. But his feel for natural beauty, even in the bleakest of places, provides another dimension to Leonard's character and, distorted as the morality is that Leonard and The Moth Man espouse, Leonard's explanation for their actions makes us all guilty of the offences they punish. In Leonard's personal morality the unforgivable sin is that of averting our eyes from what is wrong in our world, of not wanting to know, or of knowing and doing nothing about it.

So, Burnside's story becomes a parable about our own omissions, our own distortions of reality, and our own disaffection, but it is nothing like an evangelistic morality tale.Glister is much more subtle than that, and it is a gripping and very unsettling story.


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