American lie

John Burn­side’s 10th novel tells the story of the world’s most pow­er­ful na­tion from the Sec­ond World War to the 1990s through the or­di­nary lives of small town Amer­ica

The Herald - Arts - - BOOKS - John Burn­side Jonathan Cape, £16.99 Re­view by Rose­mary Gor­ing

IN the last year of the last cen­tury in small town Amer­ica, a young film stu­dent is go­ing house to house ask­ing peo­ple to tell her about their past. This is for her boyfriend’s project, and she does his bid­ding du­ti­fully, and with a per­pet­ual hang­over. Fol­low­ing the death of her fa­ther, Kate Lam­bert has been only par­tially aware of what she is do­ing and why.

That changes, how­ever, when she en­coun­ters the el­derly florist Jean Cul­ver, who sees at once that Kate needs help, and of­fers it in a fash­ion Hans Chris­tian An­der­sen might have de­vised. Jean’s house could be the fairy god­mother’s cot­tage.

It sits on the edge of town where, de­spite her age, she chops logs and bakes cakes and walks in the woods. She tells Kate that if she stays sober for five days, she can come back and hear the story of her life.

As the novel un­folds, it be­comes clear that Kate’s rap­port with Jean comes in part from the loss of her mother, who walked out on her fam­ily, never to be heard of again.

The un­mar­ried, les­bian, child­less Jean slowly fills that gap, con­sciously or not, and by the novel’s end has shown her­self far more lov­ing, and car­ing, than many a con­ven­tional mother.

Bit by bit, this stern, re­silient woman un­reels her tale. Its mood is set by the mur­der of her fa­ther in Alabama when she was young, an event wit­nessed by her brother.

Mr Cul­ver was shot at the cor­ner of Ashland and Vine, a phrase that she re­peats to her­self there­after “like a curse”. But there is much more to Jean’s life than that, and like a fly fish­er­man she keeps adding fresh bait onto her hook to hold her lis­tener’s at­ten­tion.

Kate recog­nises the Scheherazade trick of coax­ing her back from the brink by the promise of more rev­e­la­tions to come, but see­ing what is hap­pen­ing does not di­min­ish the emo­tional nour­ish­ment this brings.

This, the multi-award-win­ning poet John Burn­side’s 10th novel, takes him into new and far more chal­leng­ing ter­ri­tory.

With his re­cent fic­tion, such as Glis­ter and A Sum­mer of Drown­ing, there has been as sense of re­tread­ing the same path, ex­plor­ing yet again the sin­is­ter po­ten­tial of ru­ral set­tings and small­town com­mu­ni­ties and their volatile or dan­ger­ous in­hab­i­tants.

As from the out­set of his ca­reer, with The Dumb House, tragedy and cru­elty un­der­pin, or bide their time in al­most ev­ery tale. With Ashland & Vine, how­ever, he moves be­yond dark­ness and hor­ror, to some­thing rather more hope­ful.

The heart­break his char­ac­ters have each endured, whether on the home front or in the van­guard of ac­tion, ought to make this un­bear­ably dark. In some re­spects it is.

The point­less and sav­age cat­a­logue of sadis­tic, mer­ci­less vi­o­lence and death that has trau­ma­tised ev­ery­one within its pages can­not be re­deemed by any philo­soph­i­cal ar­gu­ment or de­fence of loy­alty or pa­tri­o­tism.

Yet in the ten­der­ness of the af­fec­tion that grows be­tween the old woman and the young stu­dent, and the lov­ing aware­ness of the nat­u­ral world with which this novel is al­most in­ci­den­tally im­bued, there is also a frag­ile op­ti­mism.

Ashland & Vine is a novel about sto­ries, those of in­di­vid­u­als like Jean Cul­ver, but also the ones a na­tion tells it­self to keep a lid on the truth and in­sur­rec­tion. When it be­gins, Kate has no be­lief in the power of a nar­ra­tive to make sense of a life.

“Things just hap­pened, like scenes in a movie. Some scenes were beau­ti­ful, some were tragic, or some­thing like it. Some just went wrong, like when some­body gets a boom in the shot, or a car flashes by, drown­ing out the di­a­logue. The scenes didn’t con­nect, though, it was just one thing, then an­other.”

Jean the racon­teur, how­ever, takes a dif­fer­ent view. She in­tro­duces Kate to the “As If” school of phi­los­o­phy.

“We ac­cept that these fic­tional ideas of or­der and mean­ing are not true as such, but if we are able to will our­selves to live

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