Wednesday 22 September 2010

Review: Blacklands by Belinda Bauer

A twelve-year-old boy embarks on a correspondence with an imprisoned paedophile/serial killer. Doesn't sound like the most appealing premise for a novel, does it? Or at least it didn't to me when I first chanced across a short review of Blacklands, Belinda Bauer's debut novel, early this year. But there was more to the premise, and those further details did intrigue me, to the extent that I mentally filed away the review and then finally bought a copy of the novel and read it. And once I got stuck into it, it was very hard to put down.

The twelve-year-old boy is Steven Lamb; the serial killer is Arnold Avery. Nineteen years ago Avery abducted and murdered Steven's uncle Billy (who was eleven at the time) and buried his body somewhere on Exmoor, along with those of the other children Avery killed. But unlike many of those other bodies Billy has never been found, and as a consequence Steven lives in a home shattered by grief. His nan – Billy's mum – keeps a silent vigil at the window and hasn't a good word to say to or about anyone, including Steven; his single mum lets her anger and frustration sour her relationship with her son, instead favouring Steven's younger brother.

But Steven has a plan that he thinks will mend his fractured family: if he can just find uncle Billy's body, he reasons, then there can be a sense of closure. So he spends most of his spare time – when he isn't being ignored at school or chased by the fictional village of Shipcott's resident hoodies – digging on Exmoor, sometimes with his best friend Lewis, sometimes alone. Of course, having no idea where Billy is buried, he finds little other than the odd sheep skeleton. Which leaves Steven with one option: to ask Avery.

The correspondence between Steven and Avery provides the impetus for the book, as Steven tries to extract information from Avery and Avery in turn revels in the power he holds over his new penpal. Bauer never overstates Steven's capabilities: he's not a particularly extraordinary boy, and it takes him an age to draft each missive, as he negotiates the tricky path between providing Avery with information and not revealing too much about himself. What Steven actually is is that kid you knew at school who always smelt a bit mildewy and never had many friends: in other words not the ideal person to go up against a cunning and manipulative child-killer. Both Steven and Avery are well drawn by Bauer, and if some of the other characters suffer by comparison – notably Steven's mum and nan – that's entirely forgivable when the two leads are so distinctive.

There is, however, a third presence in the novel, one that's as well realised as Steven and Avery: Exmoor itself. Since the notorious 1960s moors murders, Britain's various moorlands have had a unmistakable connection with death, even though Brady and Hindley's activities were confined to Saddleworth Moor. As anyone who's been on Exmoor or Dartmoor can attest they're spooky places at the best of times: beautiful but barren, and prone to instantly changeable and dangerous weather. Bauer taps into this morbid mystique, artfully describing in her uncluttered but vivid prose the way disorienting fog can fall on the unsuspecting visitor, and ascribing to Exmoor a disturbing erotic fascination for the unrepentant Avery.

As the novel sprints towards its conclusion Bauer ups the ante with a thrilling prison break and a final, nerve-wracking confrontation on the moor. But it's the two main characters – three if you count Exmoor – that stay with you: the awful, monstrous but perversely compelling serial killer and the damaged, determined but ultimately very average boy who dares to tangle with him.

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