BURIAL is one of those books that will make you miss your stop on the train. I predict that it will be a hit (2009's equivalent to 2008's NO TIME FOR GOODBYE by Linwood Barclay, perhaps), and will probably end up on a screen near you soon enough.
Nathan is a weak drifter, full of cynical superiority about the world but externally inarticulate in the need to appear cool, like so many young men (and women). He's employed as a researcher for the talk-radio show of faded, jaded ex-celebrity Mark Derbyshire, whose mainstream career ended in a scandal and who is now firmly embedded in the trash end of the market. Nathan is mainly a gopher who does all the worst jobs, having to be sycophantic to Mark and his sidekick Howard (producer of the show) while they humiliate him and keep him on tenterhooks about whether his short-term contract will be renewed. Nathan lives with the ambitiously trendy, 'together' Sara and is usually on drugs in order to cope with his boredom with her as well as the inconsistencies between his internal and real lives. In an unusual fit of decisiveness, he decides to split with Sara, whom he suspects of having an affair with her boss, and so takes her to Derbyshire's annual party in the far suburbs of London to soften the blow.
At the party, Nathan meets Bob, his flatmate from a few years' back. Bob is fascinated by ghosts, and is still (as he was then) studying paranormal phenomena as a PhD project – so he tells Nathan. Catching up on old times, the men get high, and Nathan meets a lovely teenager, a local girl called Elise. Nathan and Elise fancy each other – so slip out of the party round the back of the house, Bob agreeing to pick them up in his car to give them a lift to a station or taxi-rank. Bob instead drives them to a deserted spot. Horror ensues.
At this point, I almost stopped reading, as the crime is brutal and nasty – and told in such a clinical, uncompromising style – that I lost any interest in the characters or in finding out what they did next. But I did read on, to find that the narrative moves to a different plane, transcending the previous disgusting events. The rest of the book is about the next years of Nathan's life: how the police investigation of the tragedy affect his circumstances; and how his intense reaction to the crime forces him to try to atone for what he has done and witnessed. The story is about the process of that atonement. I am not going to spoil it by going into any details of the plot, but it is a fantastic weaving of perspectives and narrative, set against some telling observations of life and values across generations and in today's shallow, slick 'job and success' market.
The end of the book is slightly weakened by the reappearance of the unconvincing Bob (a character only bought in when the plot needs to move along), and the conclusion does not quite gel, requiring one person to act rather out of character. But this slight let-down does not detract from the achievement of this book, which demonstrates really powerful emotional insight and observation as well as a cracking pace. It is not Ian McEwan, but is not that far off.