Glister, By John Burnside

Poisoned nature: a murderous world where not only the children are dying

Reviewed,Simon Kovesi
Sunday 23 October 2011 00:49

The looming backdrop of Glister is "the plant" – a massive city of disused dereliction, once a chemical factory. Children of the impoverished "Innertown" use the plant's vast expanses as hunting ground and playground. Unfortunately, so does a child-murderer.

This novel's setting is a post-industrial masculine world, where women are withdrawn, alcoholic or absent. The men are no pillars of power either: children watch their fathers broken by chemically induced degradation; sons harbour a murderous rage of patrilineal impotency. With the murderer on the loose, the children find meagre solace in one another's bodies, and John Burnside draws the swift, blunt exchange of sex between teenagers with conviction.

His set-piece scenes of violence are disturbing because so graciously, venomously naturalistic. Every act of love, as of violence, is mourned, memorialised and ritualistically written into the land. Rather like the community of isolated individuals in George Mackay Brown's Greenvoe, Burnside populates Innertown with misanthropes who live and breathe their land, no matter how unforgiving it might be.

Glister is a taughtly drawn crime novel, a mystery novel and a horror novel in one. Occasionally the narration seems uncomfortable with genre conventions: the local bobby worries that "he sounded like a policeman from a TV pro-gramme". But these are quibbles. Burnside burns most brilliantly when he allows himself free rein to become a prophet of the natural sublime. The teenage protagonist Leonard attains a relationship with nature which is much more than interconnectedness: "Everything's one thing. It's not a matter of connections, it's an indivisibility. A unity. I can feel the world reaching away around me in every direction, the world and everything alive in it, every bud and leaf and bird and frog and bat and horse and tiger and human being... everything touched by the light, everything hidden in the darkness."

The world of this chilling novel is steeped in a nature so finely drawn that it aches with its pulsing, crippled mortality. Glister is a novel of ecology, of a lyrical comprehension of the breath and breadth of nature. It confirms that, all too quickly, nature's lungs can clog into a choking wheeze.

The novel is more broadly directed at the amoral irresponsibilities of big business in its abuse of nature. Even more effectively, it points to the secret abuses of the environment carried out by us all.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments