My rating: 4 stars
Throughout The Devil’s Footprints by John Burnside, the past of the main character, Michael Gardiner, seeps into the present. Readers are presented with the memories of a man who is struggling to come to terms with various events from his life and whose mental health is compromised. This short novel doesn’t have a particularly fascinating and exciting plot. It shines thanks to the distinctive voice of its troubled narrator.
There’s a tale in Coldhaven, a fishing town in Scotland, about the devil roaming the streets on a winter night and leaving a trail of dark hoofprints. Michael, the narrator and main character, connects this tale with his own personal story. He recalls reading a piece of news a year before about a woman, Moira Birnie, who drugged her two young sons, drove them to a quiet road and torched the car with the three of them inside. She had started to believe that her husband, Tom Birnie, was the devil, and that the two young boys were the devil’s children. She didn’t kill her 14-year-old daughter, Hazel, though.
Before she got married, Moira had briefly been the narrator’s first girlfriend. But their connection extends to other elements of her family. Michael keeps a dark secret about his association with her deceased brother, which he recalls with unsettling normality. He also learnt that he and Hazel might have something in common – she could be a sleepwalker as he was for a while as a child. He clearly states that he had temporarily gone insane after learning about this possibility.
Michael recalls moments from his childhood and his most recent past. When he was around 12 years old, he was a victim of bullying. As a narrator, he has a distinctive voice, which makes the memories from his youth engaging. He also muses on his marriage and explains how he tried to understand his parents. For a while he thought that he had managed to fully know his father, while his mother mostly remained a mystery to him. Is it even possible to truly know a person? He interestingly concludes that we might not view ourselves the same way other people do.
“We go through our lives in a dream, living one life and imagining another, hearing our own voices as nobody else hears them, seeing ourselves from inside as we never appear to others.”
We are led to believe that Michael is not being truly honest about his state of mind in various stages of his life. While most of the times it feels like he purposefully doesn’t divulge everything about himself, occasionally he can be blatantly sincere. This makes him an interesting and curious narrator.
John Burnside penned a book that reads like a monologue by the narrator interspersed with some of the conversations that he had with a limited number of people throughout his life. Some moments regarding his recent past could have been more impactful had they been further developed and detailed.