Sunday, 14 June 2009


After frequently speculating about the supposed difficulty of writing about climate change in fiction, I recently read John Burnside’s novel Glister (published last year), which although not exactly about climate is a brilliant display of how an exciting story can encompass environmental degradation while sacrificing nothing in terms of plot or style. I previously knew of Burnside as a poet, especially good at ripping illusions of security or peacefulness away from towns and suburbs and responding to the mesmeric power of encounters with the wild. He wrote a great article on this for Poetry Review, citing Eugeiono Montale’s view that art’s traditions are continued by ‘those who have gone to the woods and stayed long enough to catch sight of the hide-behind, that old god who stands behind us always, in the green of nothingness, gifting us with music and the terrore d’ubriaco’ (I think that translates: ‘the drunkard’s terror’).

These ideas are made story in Glister, set in a Scottish peninsula town contaminated by a chemical factory that has now closed, leaving behind unemployment, sickness and a sense of entrapment that the town’s inhabitants share but that isolates them each from the other.  Every year or so an adolescent boy disappears in the poisoned woods that surround the town and the truth surrounding these disappearances, that the boys are being killed in some bizarre ritual, is covered up by corrupt authorities. It wasn’t easy reading for me since brutal events are graphically described and the characters are invariably suffering. I often walk out of films during torture scenes so that crime fiction element was difficult, but I persisted with Glister because Burnside writes well, especially on the beauty of a deserted factory or the town-dweller’s unformed longing to run or go away, without knowing where to go to. He builds an interesting tension between unblinking realism and another vision, of life imbued with religious significance and strangeness. 

I started thinking, if it is eco-fiction he’s subtle about it, but then he turned around at the end and delivered a ferocious attack that reminded me in its own way of the endings of American Pastoral and Kalooki Nights. Burnside has a new poetry collection coming soon called The Hunt in the Forest that sounds like it will explore a similar set of questions, ‘taking us on a journey out of the light and into the darkness, where we may just as easily lose ourselves as find what we are looking for.’ The title is drawn from this painting by Paolo Uccello, which represents a whole community adventuring towards the vanishing point, not a select and isolated poet, something that I think comes through in the novel too:

No comments:

Post a Comment