9 April 2018

The Glister / John Burnside

In the past few years, five boys have gone missing from a small town where land, water and people have been contaminated by a now condemned chemical plant. The local policeman maintains that they've simply run away. So why is he secretly cultivating a garden in the middle of the poison wood? And is the abandoned plant even more sinister than anyone has realised?

After hearing multiple reviewers of John Burnside's The Dumb House mention how weird and warped it was, I expected The Glister to be just as strange from the very start. Instead, we're presented with portraits of not particularly appealing people... I was ready to give up until we were introduced to Leonard Wilson, by far the most fleshed out character. His narrative constitutes the best part of the entire book.

Best friend to the latest of the "lost boys," almost-15-year-old Leonard has had to take over caring for his sick father and the house after his mother left. He's much too bright for his own good (he makes allusions to Proust and Julian of Norwich, for Darwin's sake!), sarcastic, a bit of a smartarse, and, like many others inhabitants of the Innertown, feels the irresistible pull of the slowly crumbling plant buildings. While he can't be bothered with most people, there are a select few with whom he forms some kind of relationship: his girlfriend Elspeth, John the librarian, and an itinerant entomologist he knows only as Moth Man. However, after a sixth boy disappears, Leonard is pulled in deeper with the gang of feckless, unstable kids whose influence he thought himself too clever to fall under.

Despite its setting on a wide-open headland, this novel feels increasingly claustrophobic; there seems to be no issue, nowhere but "here" — yet we know that there must be somewhere else, since Leonard's mom is gone and Moth Man travels around the country conducting his entomological surveys. This creates an ideal backdrop against which to silhouette the characters' quiet desperation, like insects drawn to a backlit cloth, trapped.

That's how the world works. The bad people win and the rest pretend that they haven't noticed what's going on, to save face. It's hard to admit that you're powerless, but you have to get used to the idea. That's why they have school, of course. It's there to train you in the vital discipline of being powerless. 

It's difficult not to give The Glister two distinct ratings... On the one hand, John Burnside gives his readers wonderfully vivid and eerie descriptions; for example, the  passage about Leonard's hallucinations induced by Moth Man's "special tea" is brilliant. I enjoyed his writing, moving as it does from the very tangible to the evocative and stirring.

This is how it happens: the dead go away into their solitude, but the young stay dead with us, they color our dreams, they make us wonder about ourselves, that we should be so unlucky, or clumsy, or so downright ordinary as to carry on without them.

On the other hand, I didn't find the story elements held together cohesively and, as I mentioned earlier, the majority of the characters in this novel aren't interesting or even necessary to move things along. Why include them when they have nothing to contribute? Irritatingly, girls and women are either bitches, slags or dimwits —  but then again boys and men don't fare much better under Burnside's pen.

All in all, I found this an unsettling read... and I'm still not sure how much of a laugh the author is having at our expense with the title.

I borrowed this book from my local library.
Rating: ***

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