The Burial Ground


96 pages
ISBN 0-921586-25-6
DDC C813'.54





Reviewed by Sarah Robertson

Sarah Robertson is an editor in the College Division of Nelson Canada.


This novel, like its predecessor The Blackbird’s Song, is an intense
and lyrical evocation of the irreconcilable conflicts between two
radically opposed cultures. Holdstock’s earlier novel traced the
desperate lives of three missionaries caught up in the turmoil of
China’s Boxer Rebellion. In The Burial Ground, the year is 1860 and a
lone priest is dispatched from the smug comforts of his Victoria parish
to an Indian village on the B.C. coast, his mission “to
single-handedly lay the foundations for the kingdom of God here on this
savage coast.”

A local custom that particularly appalls the priest is method of
burial: “They put them in trees. The dead in ramshackle boxes rattling
among the dead boughs.” In the course of his good works, the priest
manages to score a few Pyrrhic victories for the church before
unwittingly bringing calamity upon the village and ultimately
recognizing the impossibility of remaining emotionally detached in the
face of raw human suffering.

Interwoven in this slender volume are seven narrative voices. There’s
a sameness to the narratives—an eloquence of diction, rhythm, and
cadence—that gives the book a satisfying coherence, though at the
expense, it might be said, of narrational uniqueness. The most
distinctive voice is that of a grossly malformed infant, whose
perceptions, like those of the idiot Benjy in Faulkner’s The Sound and
the Fury, are wholly sensation-based. It is this child who, after a
horrifying chain of events, awakens in the priest the realization that
the burial ground will endure long after the religious bag of tricks he
has foisted on this alien culture has turned to ash. In the burial
ground, the two cultures achieve a haunting symbiosis.


Holdstock, Pauline., “The Burial Ground,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed June 23, 2024,