John Burnside - Glister (4 stars)

John Burnside - Glister

(Jonathan Cape)


It’s safe to say this latest novel from Fifer John Burnside won’t be sparking a tourism boom on the east coast anytime soon. But his bleakly beautiful tale digs beneath the surface of the everyday to do what he does best, hunting out terrifying and comforting truths about what makes us tick. The fictional hell-hole of Innertown lives in the shadow of a disused chemical plant. It’s not clear what poisons were brewed up behind the factory walls, but the coastline is suffering a toxic hangover, where deformed animals and diseased humans crawl about their day-to-day existences. When schoolboys start disappearing, the local bobby seems suspiciously blasé, and a collective, paranoid finger is pointed at a reclusive weirdo hiding in the wasteland, writing love letters to a death row killer.

Burnside narrates his way around the grim backdrop of smalltown claustrophia and inertia through Leonard, a 15-year-old bookworm. A likeable, sensitive smartarse that knows exactly what it means when a teacher calls him a misanthrope, and quotes Molière right back at him, he’s full of the kind of precocious insight that makes him all the more aware of the nightmare life mapped out for him. Part coming-of-age drama, part sci-fi thriller, with a healthy dose of satisfyingly dark Scottish miserabilism, the themes of sin and redemption or death and the afterlife should make this as heavy as a wrecking ball, but Burnside’s too subtle and masterful with his language for that. In his hands, the doom and gloom becomes absorbing and eloquent.

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