John Burnside - I Put a Spell on You (4 stars)

The fascinating writer's latest is a semi-memoir that partially explores the theory behind the practice

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John Burnside - I Put a Spell on You

Probably by commercial necessity John Burnside’s I Put a Spell on You is being promoted as a memoir, the missing link between his earlier volumes A Lie About My Father and Waking Up in Toytown, but it is a far stranger and more haunting book than those two celebrated texts. More a collection of essays and sketches, the thread that holds it together is an impressionistic account of his teenage years in industrial Corby, and his move to Cambridge in the early 1970s. There he falls in love with a beautiful young woman, although, possessed by an inexplicable need for self-sabotage, he manages to alienate her completely, and in the process generate an image of lost potential that obsesses him for the rest of his life.

By weaving in specific digressions about Nina Simone, the rapture of losing yourself in the Arctic circle, the nature of that old Scots word thrawn and the terrifying potentials not of ‘glamour’ but of ‘being glamoured’, this book acts as a kind of indirect ars poetica, a half-veiled glimpse of the theory behind the practice, the sources that hint towards Burnside’s idiosyncratic and gorgeously occult metaphysics. In his poetry, everything teeters on the edge of unreality, every moment is poised on the threshold of an intense otherworldly revelation, and it is the force of Burnside’s gift to make this otherworldliness feel more seductive and fundamentally more real than the reality we have chosen. Here, the ‘dark side of the fair’ is where we want to be, for all its threat and bloody sense of eros, because ‘nobody can be glamoured from this world, the source has to come from some other place: l’autremonde, from fairy time, from the other side of the looking glass.’ Unfocused and perhaps occasionally too digressive, this is still one of the best introductions to an endlessly fascinating and important writer.

Published by Jonathan Cape on Thu 1 May.

John Burnside

Dunfermline-born poet and novelist John Burnside won the TS Eliot Award and the Forward Prize in 2012 for his collection Black Cat Bone.

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