At first glance, The Glister defies all stereotypes. One is never sure if it is a crime thriller or a spooky horror story, albeit with an angelic bent. It is to John Burnside's credit that it could be both, and without its falling for any stock rituals of either genre.
Innertown is a postindustrial township in terminal decline since the closing of the chemical plant that ran its economy. The plant is a raging monument to disaster, seeping poisonous waste into the residents' consciousness and bodies.
Against this apocalyptic backdrop, a series of disappearances grip the town — teenage boys who, one after the other, simple vanish without a trace. Have they run away? Are they dead? Burnside keeps the mystery crackling until the end.
The tale runs around Leonard, a bookish teen who befriends quirky characters like Moth Man, a mysterious stranger who seemingly visits Innertown to collect data on moths. The boy's mother has left the household, leaving Leonard to look after his father, a victim of the town's infectious moroseness. In spite of his frequent forays into misogynistic bile, Leonard is an adorable guy — articulate, conflicted, determined. The action unfolds through his eyes, even as — like in the best fiction — he is no distant narrator, but a churner of integral events.
Then there is Morrison, the local police officer, mired in guilt because he knows something about the first disappearance, yet is forced to shut up by Brian Smith, an influential local businessman who has a stake in keeping the wrongdoings under wraps.
Burnside builds on the immorality of actions in Innertown to craft a tale with no neat endings. In the story's hallucinatory culmination, redemption is assured, even if in the garb of another shocking crime. The Glister is no run-of-the-mill story; it's a deeply philosophical tale that goes right to the heart of existence and what one must to do, despite circumstances, to retain humanity.
Vikram Johri is a writer in New Delhi, India.