Paperback Original: 346 pages
Publication Date: 02/01/2010
Whilst I would love to be able to claim that I arrive at every book I read with no preconceptions, I have to admit that this is rarely the case. Other reviews, my feelings on a genre or on an author’s previous books and even the cover, are all elements that have the ability to influence my expectations. So, when I finally got around to reading Belinda Bauer’s Blacklands the other day, the anticipation that I felt was undoubtedly the result of the critical lauding that the book has received since it was published at the beginning of 2010. And whilst it is sometimes the case that a novel with so many positive reviews can fail to live up to the hype, Blacklands was not one of them. This is a brilliant example of psychological crime fiction, and the fact that it is Bauer’s debut novel makes it all the more impressive a read.
Set in the beautiful but wild environ of Exmoor, the book revolves around twelve-year-old Steven Lamb’s attempts to discover the grave of his uncle, Billy Peters, who disappeared – aged eleven – nineteen years before. Evidence [a pair of Billy’s trainers] pointed towards paedophile Arnold Avery. But even after being convicted for murdering multiple children, Avery refused to admit to killing Billy or where the body was buried. This lack of closure fractured Steven’s family; his nan spends her days staring out of a window on to the moors, Billy’s room has become a shrine [left in exactly the same condition as when he was last in it, half-finished Lego space station and all], and Steven’s mother has become apathetic and distant from her eldest son.
Upon reading these passages of Steven’s home and family I was immediately struck by the manner in which it echoes Dickens’s Great Expectations. The mixture of stasis and decay that pervades Miss Havisham’s Satis House is mirrored in Steven’s family home by Billy’s never-changing room and the smell of mildew.
So Steven, in a heartbreaking display of childish hopeful innocence, spends his days digging haphazardly across Exmoor in the belief that if he discovers Billy’s body then it will give closure to his nan and his mother and thus heal his fractured family. But when he realises the futility of this course of action he decides to write directly to Avery, and so begins a deadly game with a dangerous predator and artful manipulator.
Told in direct and uncluttered prose, Blacklands avoids employing graphic violence or flashbacks to grab the reader, instead using the battle of wits between Steven and Avery as a means to ratchet up the tension. And, whilst the prison services probably won’t be particularly happy with the manner in which they are represented [racist, incompetent and cowardly, the gaolers are, to a man, completely useless and dislikeable], I found this to be a disturbing and uncomfortable read, but one that was ultimately redemptive and filled with hope.
On a completely unrelated point [and because I was unable to shoehorn it into my review anywhere else – and believe me, I tried!], I wanted to mention how much I loved the fact that Steven’s class was reading Ian Serraillier’s The Silver Sword. I absolutely adored it as a child and would probably go so far as to say that it gave me a taste for thrillers that has shown no signs of waning over the years!