My rating: 4 stars
Readers who always require a book to have a clear and definitive ending are probably not the target audience of Glister by John Burnside. It offers a thought-provoking combination of social commentary and atmospheric mystery, supplemented with a pinch of science fiction and magical realism. Through different points of view, we are told a story full of acts of cruelty and gory descriptions, while being reminded that destitution can destroy a community, in this case one that is also dealing with the disappearance of various young boys.
The first boy to disappear from the Innertown was Mark Wilkinson. He went to the poison wood with a couple of friends looking for the devil. When he went alone further into the woods, never to return, his friends were too scared to go look for him and just ran instead. Later on, Morrison, the only policeman in the town, found the boy suspended from a tree. His hands were bound, and it looked like he had been victim of some kind of sacrifice. He didn’t know what to do. He hadn’t become a policeman to solve murder cases. So, he called Brian Smith, who had helped him get the job, and his men got rid of the body.
Smith convinced Morrison to conceal the boy’s death. But in the following years, other boys went missing. Regarding those cases, Morrison doesn’t know what happened and is unaware of whether they are dead or alive. Deep down he is ashamed of himself, despite people not knowing that he didn’t tell the truth about Mark. The official line is that all of the boys left the Innertown of their own free will, looking for a better life somewhere else. While some people believe this story, others are suspicious. Some think that the boys were murdered and then buried in the ruins of the old chemical plant.
Before the closure of the chemical plant, the entire economy of the Innertown depended on it. Politicians and managers made people believe that it was safe to work there. However, a scheme of corruption around the companies responsible for the safety of the workers was later discovered, and the plant was closed down. The effects of the chemical plant having operated in the town are evident – avenues of dead trees, sulphurous rocks, mutant sea creatures found on the shore, people having rare cancers. The inhabitants of the Innertown suffered daily with the consequences, while the powerful people lived in the Outertown in big houses.
Political and economic considerations are embedded in the story. It delves into social inequalities, which are made clear via the distinctive ways of living of the people from the Innertown and the Outertown. Moreover, it’s also mentioned that there are always those who gain something from others misery. Brian Smith, for example, founded the Homeland Peninsula Company and, after the closure of the plant, received public money to help clean the Innertown. He just had to create the illusion of competence, which he didn’t have.
“Every disaster, every civil war, every famine makes somebody rich.”
While some chapters are narrated in the third person from the point of view of specific characters, others are narrated by Leonard in the first person. He is the first character we are introduced to in the brief, visual and mysterious opening chapter. The book starts with him telling that he used to live in the Innertown, before he passed through the Glister.
“I am a boy who is quietly disappearing from the world he used to know and has already stop knowing, more or less on purpose. The man in the woods is Morrison, the Innertown’s only policeman. Before I forget him forever, he will find either hell or salvation, and the world as he knows it will end.”
After we have been told about the events surrounding the first disappearance, Leonard assumes the role of narrator once more. He focuses on his personal experience and life using verbs in the present, meaning that the introduction of the book is from the point of view of his future self. He is an avid reader and lives only with his father, who is seriously ill, since his mother left them. Through him, we become aware of how young people are sometimes left to their own devices in the Innertown. They have a hard life.
The book is quite mysterious and atmospheric at the beginning, but these qualities are lost for a while more or less midway through. Instead, there is a more common place, albeit enthralling, narration about Leonard’s life, which is then linked to the mystery of the missing boys. The final occurrences answer some of the questions about their disappearances but also raise some more. There is space for assumptions to be made and wondering if we clearly understood the last events.