Debut in Dark Zone

The Journal (Newcastle, England), October 7, 2003 | Go to article overview

Debut in Dark Zone


Byline: By David Whetstone

No doubt Sean Burke's students at Durham University were impressed with his first venture into authorship. The wise ones will have nipped off pronto to the university book shop with a view to securing a copy of The Death and Return of the Author: Criticism and Subjectivity in Barthes, Foucault and Derrida.

Their understanding of French literature and literary theory will have been enhanced with the purchase, to say nothing of their ability to score brownie points off their lecturer.

But it's my hunch that rather racier tutorial discussions could result from the author's latest offering, recently published by Serpent's Tail.

To say that Deadwater represents a literary crash of gears is an overstatement. It is a thriller, as dark and noirish as they come - a throwback to the blood-and whisky-drenched world of Raymond Chandler but set in a Cardiff of (almost) modern times. No French literary monuments here.

"Bleak, brooding and brutish," suggests one critic on the back cover of the paperback with its picture of an oily sun reflected in a pair of water-filled open graves.

Fellow writer Niall Griffiths refers to Burke's "unflinching eye into the black chambers of our hearts".

Not the stuff, then, to bring a sparkle to the eyes of the tourist board people in Cardiff, one of our erstwhile European Capital of Culture contestants.

Sean Burke isn't so sure. "This sort of thing takes a while," he suggests. "I wouldn't want to make immodest comparisons but people weren't very happy with (James) Joyce's portrayal of Dublin in Ulysses and now it's regarded as a national treasure."

Born in Cardiff in 1961, Sean Burke lived in the city until he was 18 and then went off to university in Canterbury. He returned briefly to Cardiff and then headed for Edinburgh to do a PhD.

He joined the staff of Durham University as an English lecturer 10 years ago. With a flourishing academic career, why the move to fiction and the descent into those "black chambers"? …

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