Given how prolific he is, it is almost surprising that this is John Burnside’s first novel since A Summer Of Drowning, six years ago. Granted, he has published a short story collection, three volumes of poetry and another volume of askance memoir betwixt, as well as judging the Man Booker Prize. What is more surprising is what a different kind of novel it is.
Burnside has developed a personal mythology across all his works – men who disappear suddenly and inexplicably; a kind of cross between aphasia and apophenia, where a pattern is half-glimpsed and on the edge of articulation; moments of aestheticised and transcendental violence; a spectral metaphysics of ghosts, hauntings and fetches. A Summer Of Drowning always seemed to me to form a loose trilogy with Glister and The Devil’s Footprints; contemporary fables of supernatural interruption, with post-industrial mutants, forgiving devils and ambiguous water-spirits, and a positive yearning for some kind of redemption, even martyrdom. Ashland & Vine begins in the same vein. Kate Lambert is a grieving young woman who is almost willing herself to believe in the ghost of her father. She is in a problematic relationship with Laurits, a pseudo-provocative film-maker too lazy or comfortable to be a genuine radical; their relationship is baptised and sustained in alcohol. While doing research for one of Laurits’ oral history documentaries, Kate comes upon a house not on his map, and its resident, an elderly gardener called Jean. There are many of the old Burnside tropes here: a strange girl in a First Communion Dress, who appears in Jean’s garden taking a whole egg from her mouth (a nod perhaps at Bataille?); the story of Kate’s father and his strange absences caused by a fear of “what he might do”; abandoned factories that might not be wholly abandoned. But the effect it has is remarkably different.
Burnside has always dropped allusions to film into his work (more so than usual here), so let me provide an analogy from cinema. If the previous run of novels were the prose equivalent of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, Wild At Heart and Lost Highway, this is the equivalent of the underrated, bittersweet The Straight Story. It is also about aging, about being forgiven rather than seeking forgiveness, and quiet decencies – but with an undertow of the eerie.
Jean has a startling proposition for Kate: if she gives up drinking, Jean will tell her stories. It is an un-Faustian pact, although Jean’s stories are about various accommodations with darkness. The novel is, unlike any of Burnside’s previous novels, set in America (and, yes, there are picket-fences). But Jean’s narratives allow him to explore a hidden 20th century, much in the same way as Jonathan Lethem – whose new novel we will be reviewing next week – charted the “forgotten left” in his previous book, Dissident Gardens. Jean’s father is a James Stewart-esque local lawyer who falls foul of vested interests; her brother fights in the Second World War and has a shadowy position in the government. His philosophy is “Als Ob” – “As If” – Vaihinger’s idea that in the face of a meaningless universe we live as if it had meaning. He is secretly tracking down a spy who gave nuclear secrets to the Russians; not for vengeance but to discover why it was done. His children will intersect with the Vietnam War and the anarchist Weather Underground. Jean will coyly narrate her own struggles – the personal being political after all – and her transformation into the most convincing wise women of the woods in any recent iteration.
There are moments of shocking brutality, but they cannot overwhelm the novel’s curious tenderness. It is far and away Burnside’s most optimistic and gentle book.
Some of the finest parts concern Kate’s recovery, from both unfading sadness and over-imbibing in a queasily controlling relationship. Many of these concern the different ways we approach time: addiction, for Burnside, is an attempt to stall time by the means of chaos and blackout; recovery is the process of trusting slowness, quietness, simplicity. It is a novel that unspools at a graceful pace, and the reader – like Kate – will have to keep track of where the story is seemingly derailed, where strands are left dangling, when the peremptory Jean snaps the thread.
A Summer Of Drowning featured a female narrator; Ashland & Vine does too, but also pits female resistance against male compliance or absconding in an inversion of the usual gendered terms. (Burnside’s work beforehand was not without elements of self-conscious machismo). One can surmise from the title of The Devil’s Footprints part of the plot. One of the achingly lovely epiphanies here is Kate turning round and seeing in the snow “nothing there, other than my own footprints, a blue trail of the marks I had made, leading back the way I had come… I had forgotten that presence in the world for too long a time”.
There are horrors here too, not least Jean’s recollection of how they cheered at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But this book shows Burnside can exorcise what he can conjure.
*Ashland & Vine by John Burnside, Jonathan Cape, £16.99