13. ‘The Devil’s Footprints’ by John Burnside

The Book:

[CONTAINS SPOILERS]

At first this book reminded me quite strongly of ‘The Wasp Factory’ – thanks to the sentence in which the narrator casually states that he killed his ex-girlfriend Moira’s brother – and also of the film ‘Straw Dogs’ – because of the sinister behaviour of the members of a small, insular Scottish community.

I found the beginning of the book tantalising. Burnside opens lots of avenues, poses lots of questions, so it’s all but impossible to stop reading. Why did Moira do what she did? How is the narrator, Michael, involved with her brother’s death? What will happen to Moira’s daughter? What happened to Michael’s parents in Coldhaven? And, framing the entire story, what is the mysterious phenomena of the devil’s footprints, appearing one night in the snow-covered town?

Burnside’s writing is compelling and clever, but sometimes I felt I could see the scaffolding of the story. Perhaps that’s just the literature student in me, but I could feel Burnside drawing me in, occasionally sacrificing subtlety for a slight “Keep reading, there’s obviously more to come” attitude. Still, the account of Michael’s act of murder sent a chill down my spine.

The book somehow feels longer than it is, because Burnside manages to pack so many different threads into the story. He jumps back and forth in time, but does it so skilfully that it doesn’t pose a problem for the reader. As the story progresses Michael’s perspective becomes dulled and almost dream-like, as he loses his grip on his marriage and himself.

Running through the second half of the novel are strong references to ‘Lolita’ by Vladimir Nabokov. He even directly mentions the novel, and compares himself to Humbert Humbert, a couple of times. Michael runs away with Moira’s daughter, 14 year old Hazel. His opinion of the girl as somehow adult and flirtatious – as well as his inability to understand his own desires – is similar to Humbert’s state of mind, and allows him to justify running away with a girl young enough to be his daughter. Occasionally I felt the story ran a little too parallel with Nabokov’s novel – the road trip, the hotels, her betrayal, are a touch heavy-handed.

Still, this is a good, captivating story that is very well told – Burnside is also a poet and his prose reflects this. And the mystery of the Devil’s footprints? If you don’t like books that leave questions unanswered, you might be disappointed, but I found the ending satisfyingly poignant.

“Surely that is what we mean by destiny, that long, slow sand-pile effect where, grain by grain, word by word, something becomes inevitable, though nobody could have said when one thing turned into another.”

The Background:

This is one of the books given to me by my auntie. The full list is in my post ‘Book Binge: Relatives are awesome‘.

I found out that ‘the devil’s footprints’ is actually a phenomenon that allegedly occurred in Devon in February 1855. Marks that seemed to have been left by cloven hooves were said to have appeared in the snow overnight, and ran for tens of miles. There were also local sightings of a ‘devil-like figure’ in the area. This also apparently happened in Scotland in 1840.

So maybe the next time it snows at night, it’s best to stay indoors.


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