I first encountered Paul Burston’s work while I was studying English and Drama at university. His debut novel, Shameless, which, as an undergraduate, I devoured in a few sittings, is a feisty and funny yet tender romp of a read centred on one man’s search for happiness after his boyfriend runs off with a prostitute. It was a welcome relief from some of the dry and dreary classics I had to read for the English literature component of my degree! In addition to editing short story anthologies and writing works of non-fiction, Burston then went on to write four more novels including his latest offering, The Black Path, published by Accent Press, and on general release from 15th September.
The Black Path is a departure from Burston’s previous novels, which are all essentially comedies. His fifth novel is a dark psychological thriller which is in the vein of the ‘domestic noir’ genre. The narrative is centred around two protagonists, Helen and Owen. At the beginning of the novel, Owen, a Lance Corporal in the British army, has gone to fight in Afghanistan and left his wife, Helen, to fend for herself in their hometown of Bridgend, which, at some points in the novel resembles something of a war zone itself! Helen is forced to face her fears and discovers that the two heroes in her life are not the people she thought they were. This theme is explored in Burston’s other novels but it is here that it is given a treatment that is both chilling and, at times, creepy. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of the novel is the way that Burston withholds or reveals information just at the right time. This makes for compelling reading as the twist and turns of the plot lead the reader inexorably towards a terrifying yet satisfying end. Not only is this all great storytelling but the scenes in the novel set in Afghanistan are testament to the eye for detail and the research Burston has undertaken in this area.
Burston has created characters that one feels emotionally invested in. We are sympathetic to the plights of both Helen and Owen as well as some of the minor characters and we champion their cause. Similarly, we cannot help but find ourselves strongly pitted against some of the antagonists in the piece, including Jackson, a homophobic soldier and violent husband.The characters in The Black Path are clearly defined yet nuanced and have depth. Similarly, the shift in character viewpoint throughout the novel is expertly handled. The writing style is clear and concise. (There is no excess fat in Burston’s prose.) And although one desperately wants to find the answers to some of the questions posed in the novel, one of its strengths are the many moving and emotional scenes that have a almost filmic quality. The Black Path kicks a punch, partly because it is both plot AND character driven. And at the end of the journey, we find both Helen and Owen are irrevocably changed as they face their fears and their relationship to themselves and each other.
I would wholeheartedly recommend The Black Path to anyone wishing to read a gripping psychological thriller with characters you really care about. The Black Path has already been longlisted for The Guardian’s ‘Not The Booker Prize’ and is out on general release in all good bookshops from 15th September.