The Ash Burner by Kári Gíslason
The Ash Burner is Kári Gíslason’s first novel. Midway through the book, a character, on the eve of his departure from his hometown, insists that his best friend Ted write him letters. ‘He thought you could say a lot more that way,’ Ted tells us, ‘that email was inferior.’ This attitude runs though the entirety of The Ash Burner; though it’s set in modern Australia, its sensibilities lie much more in the past. There are no actual spirits here, but nevertheless this is a novel that’s supremely haunted.
It begins with the teenage Ted throwing himself into the ocean, with a half-sense that he’ll somehow be able to find his dead mother. He’s swept onto the rocks, badly hurt, and pulled out by his father. While recuperating in hospital, Ted meets Anthony, a boy a few years ahead of him at school, and Claire, Anthony’s girlfriend.
The increasingly intense friendship between the three of them forms the bulk of the narrative, with Ted somewhat in awe of both of them and taking part in their plans to leave the town of Lion’s Head and move to Sydney. The story spans years, and though there is a quietness and subtlety to the characters’ relationships (Ted is criticised on several occasions for being far too serious) the narrative does take some surprising turns, with one of the novel’s final revelations hitting the right balance of being both shocking and wholly believable.
In Gíslason’s first book, memoir The Promise of Iceland, he showed that he was a nuanced writer, and here, with The Ash Burner, he has again shown his skill at mapping the subtle shifts in our lives. It’s a thoughtful work that should leave an impression long after it’s put down.
Chris Somerville works for the online team at Readings.