The Devil's Footprints
John Burnside
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Buy *The Devil's Footprints* by John Burnside online

The Devil's Footprints
John Burnside
Anchor
Paperback
240 pages
February 2009
rated 4 1/2 of 5 possible stars

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The Devil's Footprints is a beautifully written meditation on the nature of sin and guilt, even as it powerfully evokes the desolate surroundings of the Scottish coast, particularly the small fishing village of Coldhaven with its cramped boatyards running down to the sea on its tight, rain-colored streets and narrow cobbled wynds.

Under the watchful guise of the cold, gray waters of the Firth of Forth, Michael Gardiner lives a secluded life in the comfortably remote house that was trusted to him by his parents after they died. Self-deluded and emotionally shunted, Michael is no longer that attentive to his wife Amanda. Indeed, for the past few years, he's been caught in a holding pattern with the two of them steadily drifting apart.

One morning while perusing the local newspaper, Michael reads of an appalling event which not only forces him to confront a terrible incident of his past but also leads him to take radical steps to renegotiate his future. The article is about Moira Birnie, and her two sons, Malcolm, aged four, and Jimmie, three, found dead in a burned-out car seven miles from Coldhaven.

At thirty-two, Moira had, according to the grapevine, drugged her young sons, driven them to a quiet, sandy road near a local tourist spot, and torched her car with herself and the boys inside. Apart from being shocked that someone could commit such a horrendous act, Michael is also intrigued that it could happen so close to home. He also comes to realize that he knew Moira when she was only eighteen years old.

It was just a short affair, begun by accident, but the news of Moira's unspeakable act jumpstarts the memory of something Michael has never told, something he'd managed to shift to the back of his mind and leave there until now.

As a boy, Michael grew up an obvious outsider, protected by his parents but taunted at school, especially by another Malcolm: the malicious Malcolm Kennedy, who imposed on him a series of increasingly frequent everyday cruelties. Blindsided by the depth of Malcolm's malice towards him and at the sheer singlemindedness of Malcolm's malevolence, Michael gradually becomes convinced that Malcolm is going to do him real harm.

The inevitable confrontation takes place and ends with a surprised boy falling away into the blackness of shadows and water. Michael is unable to find any real absolution. Now, twenty years later, it is only through the gossipy Mrs. K, Michael's housecleaner who provides him with a lifeline to the squalor of Coldhaven life, that Michael can eventually fill in the blanks in the case of Moira Birnie and also come to terms with that deep, dark long-ago incident.

Mrs. K tells Michael that there is an older daughter of Moira's whose name is Hazel. At fourteen, Hazel was possibly born out of wedlock. Although people always assumed Tom Birnie was the father, Mrs. K sows the seeds of doubt in Michael's mind that he might just be the girl's dad. Soon enough he's spending his days alone, thinking and dwelling on the past, mulling things over and becoming ever more obsessed with the story of Hazel Birnie. He decides he wants to meet her, or at least to see her.

In Michael's world, everything is connected, but he remains ultimately a rather unpleasant and disconsolate observer of life, almost like a blank slate. In the end, he remains a somewhat coldhearted and unabsorbing character. The urge to find out more about Hazel forces him face up to cold, hard reality, the friendship with her eventually making him embark on a drawn-out cat-and-mouse game in the form of a strange road trip that Hazel initiates the first time she speaks to him.

Michael uses this encounter with Hazel to rid himself of Amanda, but he's also trying to purge the great lie from his past and lift himself out of this incredible urge to confess. In this vivid portrait of a dark and disconsolate inner life, it isn't until the end of the story that Michael fully comprehends the folly of his ways and recognizes that the mistakes he has made are inevitably his, whether or not he ultimately chooses to take responsibility for them.



Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at www.curledup.com. Michael Leonard, 2008

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