Northwords Now Issue 39

The FREE literary magazine of the North

Blasted Things

Lesley Glaister, Sandstone Press (2020)

A Review by Cynthia Rogerson

For established Glaister fans, it will come as no surprise that she’s produced another cracker. Though her consistency is rather incredible. Helen Dunmore and Louisa Young are the only other writers that come to mind, in this respect.  How does she do it?  Perhaps her magic is in creating psychologically credible characters who are both interesting and engaging.   Never simple, never predictable.  There is often someone sinister, but that character is never evil.  They have reasons for their wicked intent, and the reader’s sympathy can lie with both victim and persecutor.  In fact, the line between the two is never clear, and the point of the stories is never to tie loose ends, though loose ends are often tied up. Her stories are dark and riveting, but they still reflect life artfully.  Which makes Glaister’s novels literature.

Blasted Things opens with a deceptively cliché scene. It’s World War One, and beautiful upper class Clementine has become a nurse at the front.  Mourning her brother’s death by saving other soldier’s lives, she meets and quickly falls in love with a tall handsome Canadian doctor. The novice Glaister reader might be lulled into thinking this will be a traditional war novel, with lovers separated and then later re-united, perhaps with a baby or two thrown in. Familiar romantic territory.  But Glaister fans will not be fooled, for she is never a formulaic writer.  By page 50, Clementine is back in London and regarding her new son with chilling indifference.  We are inside her head, also wondering why people like babies.  Then we slip into her housekeeper’s head and her husband’s head, and we are anxious about the baby. Soon we are worried about a stranger with a painted eye, another war victim, then we are afraid of him.  Terrified. Then very uneasy because we’ve identified with someone who now clearly shows a potential for cruelty. Is he a psychopath or simply a survivor? These switches of empathy are uncannily swift, almost dizzying.  And we still don’t know what this novel is about, if not war, if not tragic love, if not PTSD or depression.  Uncertainty propels the story, makes it original. We are interested because the flawed characters are so real and so dear, and we want them to be alright.

I’m a slow reader, but I can read a Glaister novel in two days, gleefully jettisoning things like eating and sleeping.  Yes, her novels are easy to read, but not because they’re dumbed-down or uncomplicated.  They are easy to read because they are exquisitely crafted, never drawing attention to the author. The pleasure they give is like learning your favourite comfort food is also, coincidentally, the most nourishing food on the planet. It’s simply not true, that reading literature always means working hard.

She’s written fifteen novels.  Obviously, this is not enough.