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The Glister Reader’s Guide

By John Burnside

The Glister by John Burnside


“Brilliant. . . . Beautiful and frightening.”
The New York Times Book Review

The introduction, questions, and suggestions for further reading that follow are designed to enhance your group’s discussion of John Burnside’s hauntingly memorable novel The Glister.


Acclaimed author John Burnside delivers a profound, page-turning novel about innocence, evil, morality, and the dark corners of the human psyche.

Mysterious illnesses affect the inhabitants of the post-industrial village of Innertown, and a pervasive sense of malaise hangs everywhere. So when teenage boys disappear into the poisoned woods surrounding the village’s abandoned chemical plant, no one notices, or if they do, they don’t say a thing. Not even the town’s only cop, whose leads have long since died. To one boy, however, the chemical plant is beautiful, and it is there he will enact a plan to change the fate of the children of Innertown. To do so he will have to confront the blinding reality that burns in the chemical plant’s cavernous center.

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. What was your initial reaction to the disappearance of the boys? Were you expecting the story to go in a different direction?

2. The story is set in what was once an area of natural beauty, now defiled by pollution and neglect. Is The Glister an “environmental” novel? Who does the author imply is responsible for the environment’s decay? Who suffers from its effects?

3. The novel is told from multiple perspectives, but Leonard is the only character whose thoughts are told in the first person. Why do you think this is? From where might he be telling the story?

4. Leonard remarks, “I can’t help thinking that, if you want to stay alive, you have to love something.” How does Leonard maintain a sense of optimism among his bleak surroundings? When and why does his attitude later shift?

5. How does Leonard feel about his mother? Is his attitude justified?

6. What do you think of the way sex is portrayed in the book? Did you find it shocking? What is the significance of the strangling game that Leonard plays with Elspeth?

7. Who is The Moth Man? Did you view him as a positive or a negative presence? Did your feelings about him change as the book progressed?

8. What happens when Alice encounters “the angel”? Is she redeemed? Saved?

9. What part does grace play in the book? What part does guilt play?

10. How did you read the book’s final chapter? What is “The Glister”? Does the author set up a Schrödinger’s Cat scenario, in which two possible but apparently contradictory endings happen simultaneously? Did the author mean to be ambiguous, or is there a definite interpretation?

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About this Author

John Burnside is the author of the novel The Devil’s Footprints, the memoir A Lie About My Father, as well as five additional works of fiction and eleven collections of poetry published in the United Kingdom. The Asylum Dance won the Whitbread Poetry Award, The Light Trap was short-listed for the T.S. Eliot Prize, and A Lie About My Father won the two biggest Scottish literary prizes: the Scottish Arts Council Non-Fiction Book of the Year Award and the Saltire Society Scottish Book of the Year Award.

Suggested Reading

John Burnside, The Devil’s Footprints; Keith Donohue, The Stolen Child; Tim Gautreaux, The Missing;  Stephen King, IT; Dennis Lehane, Mystic Riiver; Philipp Meyer, American Rust; Christian Moerk, Darling Jim: A Novel; Jayne Anne Phillips, Lark and Termite; Alan Sillitoe; The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner.
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