John Burnside - Living Nowhere (2003)
100 Best Scottish Books of all Time
Living Nowhere amply confirms John Burnside as one of the greatest writers of prose working today. Born in West Fife, he grew up in Cowdenbeath, before leaving for Corby, an industrial centre in the English Midlands, where his father worked in the steel mills. Expelled from school, he worked variously as a peanut fryer, gasket cutter, gardener and labourer and while working in computer systems design he began writing the poetry for which he is primarily celebrated.
This, his fourth novel, has strong autobiographical elements and tells the coming-of-age story of Francis Cameron, son of a Scottish steelworker growing up in Corby during the 1970s. The strange, violent and dislocated character of this industrial new town is brilliantly evoked, as is the atmosphere of the 1970s, where friendships are cemented by acid, music and a shared alienation. The brutal murder of Francis' best friend Jan precipitates his flight, a journey that cuts him away from his family to search for meaning, belonging and wholeness. The fragmentation of his internal world is evoked in a dialogue between the living and the dead, between love and violence, between home and exile, between belonging and alienation. Burnside's genius enables him to move from the personal to the universal, conjuring the history and feeling of a generation, and speaking directly to an idea of Scotland and Scottish identity that was seriously under siege. 'They wanted to go home,' reflects one character as he thinks of the immigrant Scottish community living in the poisonous shadow of the steel mills, 'but there was no such place as home.'
This is a novel of ideas that dares to demand the reader's attention and thought while remaining accessible. In prose which is beautifully tuned, and exquisitely alive to the nuances of human consciousness, Burnside speaks ultimately of redemption, working that meditative spell that can and should exist between reader and writer.
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