'The Glister' by John Burnside
Reviewed By Michael Harris
A moral fable in the guise of a murder mystery, John Burnside's "The Glister" has an unusual protagonist: its own prose style. Burnside, a Scot, has published 11 collections of poetry as well as a memoir, "A Lie About My Father," and fiction, including the novel "The Devil's Footprints." Here, the language in which it's told is crucial to how we read this darkly beautiful meditation on death, guilt and redemption.
Not that there isn't a hero of the regular, human sort: Leonard Wilson, a precociously bookish 15-year-old boy in a derelict Scottish industrial town. At intervals of a year or two, five of Leonard's schoolmates, all boys, have vanished. The authorities debunk widespread fears of foul play by claiming the boys have run off to the big city. Leonard knows better: "People from the Innertown don't leave, not even to go on holiday or visit relatives. They talk about leaving all the time, of course, but they never actually get out."
Why? In part, because the huge chemical plant that once gave work to the town's residents poisoned everything before it was closed down: soil, vegetation, animals, people. The older generation has died off or, like Leonard's father, languishes on the dole, prey to exotic illnesses. But the malaise is more than physical. It's a sin: "the sin of omission, the sin of averting our gaze and not seeing what was going on in front of our eyes. The sin of not wanting to know; the sin of knowing everything and not doing anything about it. The sin of knowing things on paper but not knowing them in our hearts. Everybody knows that sin."
The local constable, John Morrison, finds the first missing boy one night, ritualistically slain, hanging from a tree, but rather than publicize the crime or investigate it himself he phones Brian Smith, the home-grown magnate to whom he owes his job. Smith orders a coverup. Morrison, an insecure man with an alcoholic wife, obeys, at soul-destroying cost. As the years pass, and more boys disappear, he loses all self-respect. His only rebellious gesture, a secret one, is to tend a little garden in the woods as a shrine to the boys.