4th April 2010

John Burnside’s haunting new novel Glister, set in an unforgiving post-industrial town, concerns itself with the disappearance and presumed murder of several teenage boys, based around a disused chemical plant. Although it’s cast includes a policeman, a shady property developer and an amateur teen sleuth, to call this existential thriller a ‘crime novel’ is a bit like saying that Maradonna was a useful footballer.

Glister sits a million miles away from the mass entertainment police procedural yarns that line the bookstore shelves, and is one of the most original and exhilarating reads of the year. Continually subverting reader expectations by changing point of view and thematic emphasis, this sophisticated tale becomes a deliberation on post-industrialisation, the nature of storytelling and the darker extremities of human psychological experience.

In less capable hands such a heady cocktail could easily degenerate into an exasperating mess, but the end result is a beautiful book, by turns beguiling, sinister, playful, and never less than mesmerising. Burnside even lets its main character, the bright teenager Leonard Wilson, treatise us on the nature of what constitutes a ‘page turner’ –this as we’re simultaneously complelled to feast on one after another in a sustained display of excellent and evocative writing. If David Lynch had lived in Fife, Teeside, or the Medway towns, he might have written something like this. For a novel cast so firmly in darkness, Glister ain’t half exhilirating.

Recounting the plot scarcely does justice to the book, even if the premise is intriguing enough. In a declining town, people are still being slowly killed by the now defunct chemical plant, which has poisoned the earth around them, the air they breathe and consequently, their bodies and minds. The plant itself is one of the novel’s stars; a forebodding, multi-chambered space teeming with menace, yet shrouded in myth and exerting a compulsive pull over the town’s more curious citizens. The poisoned Innertown has lost its will to live, the collective dismay and apathy of its citizens evident. Glister asks us: What do you do with a town that has lost its purpose?

Young Leonard however, represents hope and passion in this slough of wretchedness. Leonard’s ocassionally blasé teen posturing can’t conceal both a lust for life and a genuinely inquiring mind; he loves books and girls and takes an interest in the town’s more off-beat characters. He’s blessed with the ability to see the beauty inherent in most things, even the chemical plant, through which he wanders at night.

“The chemical plant is always beautiful, even when it’s frightening, or when you can see how sad it it is, when all the little glimmers of what was here before – the woods, the firth, the beaches – show through and you realise it must have been amazing, back in the old times. Like when it’s early on a summer’s day: half-light, ruined buildings looming out of the shadows, the last owls calling to one another from hedge to hedge on the old farm road that runs past the east woods and down to the water.”

It’s hard not to like Leonard, and we feel anxious for him on these nocturnal sojourns, which just ooze jeopardy. It’s in such passages where Burnside’s writing is so heightened yet spare, that we can almost feel the hot breath on the back of our necks and see things lurking in the shadows. Glister is more than a sinister novel, it’s genuinely spooky and unsettling, and more sensitive souls might be advised to limit their enjoyment of it to the daylight hours.

Leonard’s optimism though, is something of an anomaly. A sense of shabby failure hangs over most of the townsfolk. His father is terminally ill, his gang a motely crew of misfits and his girlfriend alienated to the extent of offering oral sex to strangers for some self-affirmation. Saddest of all, perhaps, is Morrison, the investigating policeman. In order to serve his publicity conscious paymaster, the charmless property developer, Brian Smith, the officer of the law is compelled to cover up the murders of the boys. Even his own wife, the beaten, alcoholic Alice, holds him in contempt. “He was too meagre, too commonplace. There simply hadn’t been enough of him to love.” We see Morrison as a cowardly yet humane character, who remembers the unfortunate victims with a hidden shrine, which he lovingly tends. His fate is a genuinely shocking one. Yet it’s in his demise that Glister emerges as a twisted morality tale, uncomfortably reminding us that to turn the other way when great wrongs are being visited makes us as culpable as those who commit the atrocities.

The ending is stunning and dramatic, but wisely Burnside does the book justice by eskewing any easy resolution, opting instead to keep the tale shimmering under that fabulously ambiguous light that dances across each page. Glister may posit more questions than it provides the answers to, but this amazing book will haunt you long after the last dozen or so police procedurals have been dumped in the local charity shop. A work begging an immediate second reading, Glister is a very dark, but exceptionally rich treasure which goes beyond telling a disconcerting and disorientating story to illuminating the infinite possiblities of the novel.


Originally featured in The Gurdian.