“When I had to explain what it was all about, I could see some of them thinking, ‘Yes, I see: a book set on an island inside the Arctic Circle where nothing happens except inside people’s heads. How is that going to work?’ ”
One of the reasons that it does is Burnside’s ability to convey the landscape of the Far North – one that has haunted his imagination ever since he first set eyes on it in the mid-1990s. But the story of how that happened in the first place is riven with the kind of coincidences that most novelists would reject as too outlandish.
In 1994, Burnside gave a poetry reading in Durham. There were only about 30 people in the audience, yet one of them was a professor at Tromso university. He didn’t, however, introduce himself.
More than a year passed and Burnside found himself invited to a symposium at Tromso university. “This guy who picked me up at the airport – I’d thought he was just a volunteer, then he started talking about Heidegger and Benjamin and introduced himself as Dag Andersson, and mentioned he had been in that audience at Durham and I realised that he was the reason I was there.
“He took me to the island of Kvaloya [the novel’s setting] and I just fell in love with the place, so I started going to the north of Norway or Finland pretty much every year that I could.”
There was a further coincidence when Burnside sent Andersson a copy of his Whitbread-winning collection, The Asylum Dance. “When he got it, he asked me, ‘How did you know?’ Because when he was a child he used to visit a family run private asylum, and he always remembered the happiness of the patients whenever they’d put on a dance.”
ABLE KANE: Last week he was on Mastermind’s black chair answering questions on Evelyn Waugh’s novels for Children in Need on BBC2; this week comedian Russell Kane – last year’s winner of the Foster’s Edinburgh Comedy Award – announces a book deal for Simon & Schuster. The Humorist, published next April, is the story of of a man who understands all the secrets of comedy yet has never laughed in his life.