Wednesday, April 22, 2009

a review of The Glister

The Glister: A Novel by John Burnside (Doubleday, ISBN 978-0-385-52764-4)

At first glance, it might seem a rather simple, direct story. We are on the British coast, in a town called Innertown, that is, shall we say, in decline. And there is a mystery. Over the years, a number of teenage boys have disappeared. The town, and the powers that be, maybe each for their own reasons, would like to believe that the boys ran away and left the town. But the police officer who we meet at the opening of the book, John Morrison, knows differently. He has seen something, years ago, that makes him know that something more is going on, but he has been convinced to speak about it to no one. Not everyone buys into the official story of the missing boys, including the person who is the narrator for perhaps half the book, a smart, inquisitive 15 year old named Leonard.

Oh, it is a mystery story then, you might think. But no, it is not a mystery story.

A bit more about the town. It is a poisoned place, poisoned by the huge chemical plant that once operated there, a plant that's abandoned, hulking, sinister presence is like another evil character in our story. The very land has been left toxic, surrounded by a poisoned forest of black, sickly trees, freakish animals and unexplained illnesses.
“You could see evidence wherever you looked of the plants effects on the land: avenues of dead trees, black and skeletal along the old rail tracks; great piles of sulfurous rocks where pools of effluent had been left to evaporate in the sun. A few keen fisherman found mutant sea creatures washed up on the shore...some people claimed that they had seen bizarre animals out in the remaining tracks of woodland, not sick or dying, but not right either, with their enlarged faces and swollen, twisted bodies.
The most convincing evidence that some evil was being perpetrated on the headland, however, was the fact that, for as long as the plant existed, the people themselves had not been right....There was more than the usual share of exotic or untreatable illnesses, a sudden and huge increase in depression, a blossoming of what, in the old days, would have been called madness.”
So, is it a horror story? No, not really. I think what it reminds me of actually is a fairy tale, a bleak, sinister, apocalyptic fairy tale. Add in a big dose of violence and a fair bit of sex, and a moral of the story, that in the end, will remain ambiguous. Good and evil, dark and light become twisted, the lines blurred. For example, take the case of our policeman Morrison. He had made a decision, a bad decision to cover up evidence, and he will be called upon to pay for that decision. His fate is, to say the least, shocking and yet the way it is presented and how he himself understands it, takes it to a place very different than the typical horror story and certainly different that your typical mystery .

The town seems, in a way, removed from the normal world. The adults are paralyzed in their actions, the children run wild, all being poisoned in one way or another by that ever present plant and yet the simple answer, to just move away, is never an option to them.
“Nobody goes away. The kids talk about it all the time, but the truth is, none of us really knows what's out there, twenty, or fifty, or a hundred miles along the coast road, because nobody has ever gone that far. People from the Innertown don't leave, not even to go on holiday or to visit relatives. They talk about leaving all the time, of course, but they never actually get out.”
There is a certain surreal, nightmarish aspect to the story. The author, John Burnside, is also a poet and that is clear from the way that he writes. He has a certain lyrical way of telling the tale that it makes even the most horrific things seem, somehow, not totally abhorrent. At the same time he creates such a sinister air throughout the book, it is a feeling that will remain with you after the book is finished.

The line between dreams and reality is blurred. At times, we are in a character's hallucination, but, especially as we near the conclusion, we are no longer sure what is real and what is a dream and what is an illusion. If you like you stories clear and unequivocal, this may not be the book for you, but if you are up for something that will leave you thinking and wondering, well, I can pretty much guarantee this book will do that. I would think this would be a perfect pick for a book club read, because it will leave you with questions you will want to discuss. It is a book that people will either hate and walk away from shaking their heads or will find beautifully written and intriguing.

What some others think of it...
A Reader's Respite
Fyrefly's Book Blog
And Now The Sceaming Starts
Rhapsodyinbooks Weblog
Book Nook Club
Cheryls Book Nook

Available from Amazon


  1. After reading your review, I've concluded this may not be the book for me! I love your reviews, by the way.

  2. I'm with you Kathy, I don't think it is the book for me either. I'm not as adventurous nor as sharp as Caite, so this would probably be lost on me. Ditto on your reviews. They are always wonderful.

  3. people are dropping their copies like hot

    not my aim, really, but it is what it is...and what it is not. the cover paints it as a mystery, which it is not, except in the widest sense.

  4. Caite, I'm in! Sometimes I can be dense in figuring things out, but my mind is pretty twisted all by itself, and it seems to slip easily into a book equally as twisted. I'm writing it down now as I speak!

  5. This book has me really intrigued. I may have to pick it up.
    By the way, I passes an award on to you here.

  6. some times those take-em or leave-em books are the best! :-)

  7. Well, you have me intrigued! It's going on the list ... the ever growing list...

  8. I have immortazlized you, yes you, wee Caite, in penguinspeak. If you object, let me know I will remove said speak posthaste.

  9., thank you very much Kaye. I am always happy to have a nekked pen penguin speak for


please speak up, I LOVE TO HEAR FROM YOU!!