MOST OF THE events of this intellectually robust, densely written novel take place in the 1970s. First opencast mining and then the building of a new town around a vast steelworks have transformed the once pretty little village of Corby into what Burnside depicts, with ferocious vigour, as an anteroom to hell. The first two-thirds of the book – before the plot takes one of its two main characters, Francis, away into a less grim and grimy outside world – dwell on how the lurid glare of the furnaces and the omnipresent smell and taste of metal dominate the lives of the inhabitants.
Most of these inhabitants are not indigenous to the place but have been lured there by the promise of better houses, higher wages and steady employment. Among them are Scots, Irish and immigrant families. As Burnside describes their stunted, often violent lives, it becomes clear that all of them have escaped hm one prison only to find themselves in another. Typical are the families of teenage Francis and his closest fiiend Jan. Francis’s father and mother have, with their two children, come south to Corby from Scotland. Materially they have improved their circumstances; but they constantly hanker for their lost home, soon transformed by nostalgia into something far more attractive than the reality. Jan’s parents are Latvian refugees. For them home is remote. With stoical despair, they know that no return will ever be possible.
The scenes set in the steelworks are the most memorable of the book. A powerful imagination and a lot of persistent research have clearly contributed to their composition. The men take a morbid delight in recalhag horrendous accidents of the past, in whlch workers were reduced to ash in vats of molten metal or lost arms or legs in the incessantly clanking machinery. Although a rough fellowship exists between them, malevolence and cruelty are never far away. Francis and Jan, so unlike each other in every respect, escape from this brutal environment through their shared love of photography. It is significant that in this depressingly monochrome world these soulmates should work not in colour but in black and white.
The mother of Francis and his would-be musician brother Derek is slowly dying of cancer – a disease that keeps recurring in the narrative. Both boys are drawn to Jan’s cool, beautiful sister, Alina. Jan’s father is edging towards the madness that finally engulfs him when, two-thirds of the way through the book, a gang of hooligans batter Jan to death in the street.
Inevitably the murder changes the lives of all those who were closest to Jan. The leader of the gang is himself killed, in an act of vengeance typical of this tribal society. Simultaneously Francis, who is obsessed with the idea of becoming ‘a man without a history’, has vanished from the town, without telling even his fady where he is going. The general assumption is that he killed the gang leader.
As soon as the action shifts, following Francis away fiom Corby, the book suffers an unfortunate decline in both its persuasiveness and the skill of its writing. Francis, who even in his adolescence has been a taker of ‘the Holy Eucharist of acid’, becomes in turn a vagabond; a member of a mysterious, drug-crazed commune, fated eventually to destroy itself in an orgy of mass suicide; a highly-paid executive in California; and a gardener at King’s College, Cambridge. Burnside brings to these picaresque adventures a dogged professionalism, but, after the fire and heat of the previous pages, it is as if the furnace of his creativity has shut down.
After an absence of eighteen years, the wanderer, still terrified of any commitment, returns to Corby, to find it totally transformed. The steelworks has closed and its now demolished buildings no longer dominate the skyline. Derek, as sweet-natured and self-effacing as ever, is married and has a small son. The brothers’ once powerfd father has been reduced to a wraith by the illness that is clearly killing him. A meeting with the by now middle-aged Alina proves tantalisingly unsatisfactory. Unmarried, she is cool, faintly critical, almost mocking. The revelations and reconciliations of this autumnal coda are somehow both too pat and too sentimental.
Here is a writer who. at the tov of his form. can produce remarkable prose. ‘1n hs very kt pages, describing Francis and Ahna walking through a winter landscape in a state of acid-induced hyperaethesia. Burnside at once makes this clear. He also produces some genuinely profound comments on the mysteries of human existence. But unfortunately this novel, his fifih, has major faults.
Firstlv,., he constantlv ascribes to his characters psychological complexities and fluctuations of mood that, though exquisitely adumbrated, keep striking one as far too rarefied to be convincing. Secondly, these lengthy analyses have the paradoxical effect of blurring the characters rather than giving them added definition. Thirdly, he doesn’t really establish a coherent archtecture for hs work. There is a fine portico here, an impressive arch there, a soaring spire next to them, a rugged tower behind: but one looks in vain for an overall scheme. In consequence, the copious dramas of fatal Illness, incipient madness, murder, drug-taking, and mass suicide never wholly cohere.
One of the main themes to emerge fiom this dark tale of unthinking cruelties and devastated hopes is – as one of the characters. a schoolmaster, puts it – that every, life has a purpose, and our only task is to know what it is. It is in his searchmg, steady, wise illumination of this theme, and in his wonderfully poetic descriptions of natural scenery, that Burnside’s gifts are most apparent.