Friday, 20 June 2008

A grim fairy tale

by John Burnside

In his novel Living Nowhere John Burnside managed to find great beauty in the new town of Corby (or perhaps more accurately he manage to write with great beauty). His ability to find wonder in the mundane made his tale of violence in an industrial town a fascinating read. His next setting was Coldhaven, a coastal landscape with history and legend, and with the same beautiful prose he created a modern folktale with violence again at its heart in The Devil's Footprints. With his latest novel Burnside has managed to combine the strongest elements from those two books and in doing so has created his most unsettling work since his debut The Dumb House.

We are in an industrial landscape once again and Innertown, '...now nothing more than a ghetto for poisoned, cast-off workers', where an abandoned chemical plant is slowly decaying, is a landscape poisoned and dying . For its inhabitants 'the ghosts and ruffians of Innertown' it is a living hell; strange illnesses, aggressive cancers and rumours of mutant animals are just the beginning for those unfortunate enough to be close to the plant. Burnside creates an eerie atmosphere; this a place that nobody ever seems to leave, like a sinister version of The Truman Show. It has a fable like quality, the name Innertown (with the salubrious Outertown that surrounds it) the 'poisoned wood' where children dare not play and mysterious characters that hover around the edges. Layered on top of this is the terror that everyone is trying to ignore. For the last few years boys have been disappearing. The authorities claim that they have simply run away but no one knows for sure where they are or whether they are alive or not. Although that isn't strictly true. The town's one permanent policeman, Morrison, does know something, but it is a secret he's forced into keeping.

For the children there is little to do but amuse themselves with casual acts of violence and sex. Tooled up with improvised weapons they hunt the rubbish strewn landscape for prey, always under the heavy cloak of fear that they may be the next one to disappear. Amongst them is Leonard, marked out as different by his intelligence and sensitivity and in no small part by his avid reading of the classics of literature. On the back of a friendship with his librarian he seems to have covered them all from Moby Dick to Anna Karenina (he is currently working his way through Proust) and whilst this is far from impossible there is something that doesn't quite ring true. There is no definite time setting in the novel but with some modern references seeming to locate it near the present day Leonard's choices of Elizabeth Taylor and Dorothy Lamour when describing beautiful or glamorous women show the author's age and character coming through a little to clearly. But this is a minor quibble, Leonard is a beautifully realised character, his near silent relationship with his ill father encouraging first his friendship with the librarian and then the Moth Man, a visiting ecologist who offers Leonard conversation, confidence and a hallucinogenic tea and who, with his fairytale name, will become an increasingly important presence in his life.

There is so much I could say about this extraordinary novel but I don't want to spoil it for you, I want you to read it. In her novel The Secret History Donna Tartt, quoting the Greeks, said 'Beauty is terror. Whatever we call beautiful, we quiver before it.' In this book Burnside creates an atmosphere of such unease that I felt terrified in a way I haven't been by a book since reading House of Leaves. If you have already come across Burnside then hopefully you too have been impressed in some way by his writing. If you haven't then you are in for a treat. Burnside is a writer at the height of his powers. A total writer who, with a poet's skill, fills every page with a striking image, an arresting phrase, something that might just take your breath away.

I'd always felt something out at the chemical plant, no matter where I went. You could call it a spirit, or a genius loci - why not? ...It was there pointing to something I should know about, something I should have seen beyond the things I was seeing but it wasn't concerned with what you could say in words. You get a huge moon in an indigo sky, floating over the dusty water by the docks, over the rusty cranes and the old boat eaten away by rust, you get that big moon over the harbour and you can hear owls calling from the woods above - what words are you going to have for that?...Sometimes the whole world points to something you can't see...sometimes, it's just that things are beautiful, only what you mean by beautiful is different from what people usually mean when they say that word.. It's beautiful and it's terrible too. It takes your breath away, but you don't know if that comes from awe or terror.


John Self 20 June 2008 at 08:14  

I think you might have talked me into it, you silver-tongued devil. I loved The Dumb House, liked The Mercy Boys (but found it profoundly depressing in a way I normally don't even with the 'bleakest' books) and disliked The Locust Room, since when I haven't read any more of Burnside's fiction. Time to remedy that?

William Rycroft 20 June 2008 at 15:45  

Definitely. I agree with you about his first few books but I think he has hit a seriously rich vein of form. I also can't recommend highly enough his memoir 'A Lie About My Father'. It's about time I made you buy some books. Time for a taste of your own medicine Mr Self.

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