on March 24, 2008
A meditation on the effects of guilt on the life of one man shapes this profoundly moving novel which is mostly set in a small Scottish coastal town called Coldhaven. A dark secret reverberates throughout the life of thirty-something Michael Gardiner, who as the novel opens, is living a secluded and rather self-deluded life in the comfortably remote house that has been trusted to him by his parents.
Educated and artistic, Michael's father, a successful photographer, and his artist mother, eventually settled in Coldhaven after spending most of their lives drifting through Paris and London. Although never really accepted by the inhabitants of this insular community, the Gardiner's endeavored to build a life for themselves, with Michael's father falling in love with this windswept and bleak area with its sky and light, and its beautiful stretch of sea.
As a boy, Michael grows up an obvious outsider, protected by his parents, but also taunted at school, especially by the malicious Malcolm Kennedy who chooses him as his special friend by imposing on him a series of increasingly frequent everyday cruelties. Michael is of course, blindsided by the depth of Malcolm's malice towards him, and wonders at the sheer singlemindedness and the sheer inventiveness of Malcolm's malevolence.
But it is this and the determination that Malcolm will do him real harm which steamroles the inevitable confrontation which ends with a surprised boy falling away into the blackness of shadows and water. It is also this incident which comes back to haunt Michael all these years later when he reads a newspaper article about Moira Birnie, and her two sons, Malcolm, aged four, and Jimmie, three, found dead in a burned out car seven miles from Coldhaven.
At thirty-two Moira had drugged her young sons, driven them to a quiet, sandy road near a local tourist spot, and torched her car, with herself and the boys inside. Michael is intrigued that it happened so close to home, even as he comes to realize that he knew Moira when she was eighteen years old.
It was just a short affair, begun by accident, but the news of Moira's unspeakable act jumpstarts the memory of something Michael has never told, something he'd managed to shift to the back of his mind and leave there for all these years. Only through the gossipy Mrs., K, Michael's house cleaner, and the one who provides Michael with a human lifeline to all of the squalor and indignity of Coldhaven life, can he eventually fill in the blanks in the case of the Birnie killings.
It is Mrs. K who tells Michael that there is an older daughter of Moira's whose name is Hazel. At fourteen, Hazel had been possibly born out of wedlock and although people had always assumed Tom Birnie was the father, it is Mrs. K who sows the seeds of doubt in Michael's mind that maybe he might just be the father.
It is at this moment that author John Burnside deconstructs the critical dynamic of his protagonist's life and basing Michael's story on a simple childhood lie. This rather selfish, unlikable, and habitually absorbed character begins to make connections, fitting the pieces together even as his marriage to Amanda begins to break apart, their lives running on parallel lines as they play at house, pretending to be what we were supposed to be.
Later, with Amanda barely talking to him, even Mrs. K becoming a little remote, Michael spends his days alone, thinking, dwelling on the past, mulling things over, becoming ever more obsessed with the story of Hazel Birnie and wanting to meet her, or at least see her, maybe talk to her in passing, incognito. "No matter indirectly, I had helped drive her mother to the point where she was capable of burning her own children alive."
In Michael's world everything is connected, but he remains ultimately a rather unpleasant and disconsolate observer, almost a blank slate, with the urge to find out more about Hazel making him embark on a strange, drawn-out cat and mouse game that she initiates the first time she speaks to him. When she approaches Michael with a form of seductive confidence, Michael sees it almost as a mission to save the girl from her unfortunate surroundings, particularly from her tough stepfather Tom Birnie who had reportedly driven Moira to suicide in the first place.
As Michael uses his encounter with Hazel to rid himself of Amanda while also trying to purge the lie from his past, the story takes some unusual twists and turns as Burnside vividly recreates his protagonist's rather unpromising and unremarkable life. The beautiful and articulate prose is undoubtedly the highlight of the novel, evoking the chilly and bleak surrounds of the Scottish coast, particularly that of Coldhaven with it's cramped boatyards running down to the sea on tight, rain-colored streets and narrow cobbled wynds, "the cold gray water of the Firth."
Even though Michael endeavors to come to terms with the nature of sin and this incredible urge to confess, he remains in a kind of passive holding pattern, particularly when faced with the disintegration of his marriage to Amanda. As a boy, he was a scientist, a dispassionate observer of the natural world, and after knowledge not cruelty. It isn't, however until the end of the story that he realizes that his folly and the mistakes that he has made inevitably remain his, whether he ultimately chooses or not to take responsibility for them. Mike Leonard March 08.