Skip to content

John Burnside – The Glister

February 16, 2009

18. The Glister by John Burnside (2009)

The Glister will be published in the U.S. by Doubleday on 10 March 2009.

Length: 232 pages
Genre: Lit Fiction with traces of mystery and horror

Started: 11 February 2009
Finished: 15 February 2009

How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 30 November 2008
Verdict? Most likely going to BookMooch

Missing boys, slowly
dying town, but not enough
plot to hook me in.

Summary: Innertown is a place that is dying, or perhaps one already dead. Ever since the chemical plant shut down, the town has begun a long, poisoned decay – woods full of twisted trees and mutated animals, adults dying of a host of mysterious diseases, children running desperate and wild through a world that doesn’t care about them. And then, several years prior to the story, a young boy disappears… and then another, and another. The official word is that these boys are runaways, but the truth is something altogether different, and no one is willing to look too closely at what’s happening in the ruins of the plant.

Review: This book started out with such promise. The premise is intriguing, the writing is elegant and unique (about half of Burnside’s bibliography is poetry, and he can certainly turn a phrase), and the atmosphere of Innertown is so pervasively creepy that reading even twenty pages left me feeling like I wanted a good, scalding-hot shower to rid myself of Innertown’s haunting poison. This book reads like an elegy to bleakness and decay, both physical and spiritual, and while that’s fine as an overarching stylistic choice, it’s not enough to support a novel. The beginning of The Glister hints at mystery and horror and creepiness to come, but it gets so lost in its welter of beautifully-written deep thoughts that it forgets to actually find a plot, and never lives up to its initial promise. The ending kind of sputters to a halt without wrapping up most of the main story points, instead dissolving into a bunch of bizzare metaphysical mumbo-jumbo and then just stopping. It’s entirely possible that it’s just so Deep that I didn’t get it, but if wanting my novels to have some kind of interesting plot on which to hang their poetical musings marks me out as being a Philistine, then so be it. I can live with that, and The Glister, although lyrically very well-written, just didn’t measure up. 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: Going into this book expecting a mystery, or horror, or anything other than an interesting philosophical look at innocence, evil, despair, and decay will only lead to disappointment. I’d certainly be willing to try some of Burnside’s poetry, but as a novel, The Glister doesn’t have enough of a story thread to satisfy.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Other Reviews: Never Without a Book, And Now the Screaming Starts
Did I miss your review? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: In the beginning, John Morrison is working in his garden.

Vocab: (see the whole list)

  • p. 166: “He struggled, then, straightening his legs and trying to haul himself up, but he just skidded and sprawled on the floor like that cow you always see in the films about CJD.” – Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a prion-based disease related to mad cow disease (which is what I figured he meant, except I was expecting the acronym BSE for bovine spongiform encephalopathy.)
  • p. 187: “They say every place has its own spirit, but when they talk about it in books and poems and stuff, they always mean places like bosky groves, or dark reed beds where Pan sits playing his pipes to some lost nymph, or maybe some lake with a lady sleeping just beneath the surface, but why not an old warehouse, or a cooled furnace?” – covered with bushes, shrubs, and small trees; woody.


“Even in the most law-abiding place, what makes the difference is that one man is capable of killing and another isn’t. You put those two men in the same room, and it doesn’t matter what else comes into play. It’s the difference between giving a shit and not. No matter how bad things get, most people still care about something. That’s what makes them so fucking sad, and that’s what makes them beautiful.” – p. 78

“His dad was in too much pain. Which is a funny thing to say, when you think about it, because if there can be such a thing as too much pain, that means there could be just enough, or too little. But then, when you think again, maybe that’s exactly right. Maybe you can have too little pain. Maybe you can be condemned to have just enough.” – p. 135

“When it comes down to it, maybe all you can really trust about a person is what they like. If you meet a crazy-golf fanatic, then you’ve got one kind of person. If you meet somebody who likes books, then you’ve probably got another kind of person. I can’t imagine there would be much overlap between the two, but you never know. Maybe Marcel Proust used to sneak off from his cork-lined room and go for a few rounds of crazy golf in the Tuileries, or wherever they have crazy golf in Paris. When you think about it, that’s quite a nice image: Marcel Proust in his frock coat and top hat, out on the crazy-golf course, early in the morning, when nobody else is about, indulging his secret vice.” – p. 159

“Sometimes, the whole world points to something you can’t see, some essence, some hidden principle. You can’t see it, but you can feel it, though you have no idea how to put it into words. And 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 not sentimental, or choccy box. 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.” – p. 187-8

**All quotes are from an Advance Reading Copy and may not reflect the final published text.**

9 Comments leave one →
  1. February 16, 2009 2:11 am

    From the quotes I would say that the writing is beautiful. It does seem like it is very philosophical though. I liked the quote about Proust! :) It’s too bad it wasn’t a compelling story.

  2. February 16, 2009 2:50 am

    Thanks for resetting my expectations! I’m sure that will improve my enjoyment of this.

  3. February 16, 2009 8:03 am

    This one sounded so promising to me, but I think it’s been a disappointment to a lot of people.

  4. February 16, 2009 10:24 am

    sorry to hear it wasnt that great, the description sounds so good! thanks for the honest review.

  5. February 16, 2009 10:40 am

    Alyce – The Proust quote doesn’t really match the tone of most of the book, but it was too funny not to include it!

    Lenore – I hope so! It wasn’t bad, or uninteresting, it just didn’t tell the story it was promising.

    bermudaonion – I think it was marketed wrong… the people who would be drawn in by the cover and description are not necessarily those who would be most drawn to the book.

    bookworm – Doesn’t it, though? Another case of why we shouldn’t judge a book by its (back) cover.

  6. February 16, 2009 8:50 pm

    Sorry you didn’t really enjoy it. I’ve had the “need a shower” feel before thanks to Dean Koontz.

  7. February 18, 2009 3:47 pm

    Sorry it wasn’t all that you had expected, I’ve got this lined up for reading this weekend. I’m curious to see if I will enjoy it more knowing it’s not quite what the description led me to think it was.

  8. February 19, 2009 10:44 am

    Ladytink – The only other “need a shower” reaction I can remember was in response to China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station. They’re very different books, but both give off a post-industrial, scummy, claustrophic, poisoned feeling.

    Joanne – I hope you do have a better time with it than I did.


  1. February Wrap-Up: Books « Fyrefly’s Book Blog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: