Ashland & Vine by John Burnside – review

An old woman tells her life story to a student struggling with alcoholism in a novel recalling the tales of Scheherazade

In John Burnside’s new novel, Ashland & Vine, Kate Lambert, a film student in a midwestern American town, makes an unexpected pact with an elderly woman named Jean Culver. Kate, who has a drink problem, needs material for her college project, and Jean agrees to tell Kate her life story if she promises to kick the booze for five days.

A strange relationship between the two thus unspools, “exchanging stories for sober days, like some latter-day Scheherazade”. Just as in the original story, lives are saved as a consequence, against a background of bereavement and grief. 

Intriguingly, for all this emphasis on the healing powers of narrative, Burnside isn’t afraid to leave elements of his tale hanging. “Some things are better unspoken,” says one of his characters towards the end in what’s a rather frustrating quick fix. Jean’s stories weave a definite spell, but the novel as a whole is less convincing.

• Ashland & Vine by John Burnside is published by Jonathan Cape (£16.99). To order a copy for £14.44 go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99


Lucy Scholes

The GuardianTramp

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