Sunday, January 06, 2008

Idle hands have nothing on 'Devil's Footprints'

John Burnside's latest novel is a classic Jekyll and Hyde story, without the physical transformation wrought in the original. It is set in the haunting background of the Scottish countryside, a template that offers immediate rewards to a writer of mystery, and Burnside exploits it to full effect here.

The fishing town of Coldhaven is known to the outside world for the "devil's footprints," footmarks left after a particularly snowy night one December long ago. But to the residents of this sleepy town, personal tales of passion and failure are a dime a dozen, ready to be picked up and regurgitated. The book's narrator, Michael Gardiner, lives at the furthest point of the shore in his parents' house. His parents, it is known from the beginning, underwent a tragedy in Coldhaven because of their "different" ways.

Michael himself harbors a few secrets, revealing early on that he killed, albeit not wanting to, a bully during childhood. That bully's sister is the latest talk of the town. One fine morning, Moira Birnie woke up, packed her two little sons and 14-year-old daughter in the car, drove to a point, asked her daughter to alight, went ahead and then burned herself and her two sons in the car.

Why did she do it? And why was the daughter allowed to get away? Michael is gripped by this random crime, not only because it provides grist to the gossip mill, but also because he has the hunch that he is the father of Hazel, daughter of Moira, with whom he had a passionate affair long ago. With so many ghosts to keep him company, it is hardly surprising that Michael turns his quiet existence upside down to get to the bottom of the mystery.

He abandons his wife and leaves Coldhaven with Hazel. The journey is exciting, if dangerous, and promises ventures into new realms, both real and imagined. But in the battle between memory and reality, the present irrevocably loses out. Are Michael's intentions wholly honorable, or must we fear what he himself dubs a force, a phantom that rose "to the surface of my skin, something old "?

Burnside weaves the personal trauma of Michael's realization with the folkloric strand of Coldhaven's dark history to tease out the legend behind the "devil's footprints." The perfidy of the characters contrasted with the breathtaking calm and scenic beauty of the landscape are evoked with great skill. Burnside is an acclaimed poet and indeed, his prose shimmers with the silence that resides at the center of all poetry.

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