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Book Review: Blacklands by Belinda Bauer

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"Exmoor dripped with dirty bracken, rough, colorless grass, prickly gorse, and last year’s heather, so black it looked as if wet fire had swept across the landscape, taking the trees with it and leaving the moor cold and exposed to face the winter unprotected. Drizzle dissolved the close horizons and blurred heaven and earth into a grey cocoon around the only visible landmark – a twelve year old boy in slick black waterproof trousers but no hat, alone with a spade."

There is no better introduction to Belinda Bauer’s Blacklands than her own opening paragraph. Bauer’s chillingly evocative description sets the stage for a novel that holds both the bleakness of the moors and the tenacious hope of a small boy. In her debut novel, Bauer writes with a spare hand and a vivid sense of place. From the first lines, we are pulled into the dreary world of Steven Lamb. Attacking the resistant soil of the moors with his rusty spade, Steven digs with a purpose. The make-believe putterings of other small boys have little meaning for him. He digs to restore his family:

"Steven’s nan looked out of the window with a steady gaze.
She had started life as Gloria Manners. Then she became Ron Peters’s wife. After that, she was Lettie’s mum, then Lettie and Billy’s mum. Then for a long time she was Poor Mrs. Peters. Now she was Steven’s nan. But underneath she would always be Poor Mrs. Peters; nothing could change that, not even her grandsons."

When he was eleven years old, Billy Peters stopped at the newsstand for a packet of sweets and disappeared into the grey void of Exmoor, the apparent victim of a serial killer. However, unlike the bodies of many of Arnold Avery’s victims, Billy’s corpse was never found. His absence has created a hole in the lives of his mother and older sister Lettie, Steven’s mother, that persists into Steven’s childhood nearly two decades later.

Steven has decided that the only way to save the remnants of his family is to find the body of his missing uncle. Prompted initially by a friend who soon loses interest in the “game”, Steven digs methodically across the moors in the regions where the other victims were found. Without clues, however, a quest is doomed to failure. Steven soon discovers a way to turn his newly discovered talent for letter writing into fuel for his search.

"Dear Mr Avery

I am looking for WP. Can you help me?

SL 111 Barnstaple Road, Shipcott,

With this letter, Steven launches a treacherous game with the pedophile who murdered his uncle. Arnold Avery is a model prisoner, focused on checking off the steps likely to gain him parole so that he can return to the obsession that was interrupted by a fifteen year old boy whose “small size and choirboy features were merely a lucky lie, which hid the true face of the terror of Plymouth’s Lapwing estate.” Mason Dingle was not a nice young man. He was destined for “a life of some sort of ongoing detention. But before he got there (which he absolutely did) Mason Dingle helped to catch the man the tabloids later dubbed the Van Strangler.”

Until Steven’s first letter arrives, Avery has managed to submerge his urges beneath a façade of appropriate answers and meek behavior. However, Steven’s lines reignite the needs that Avery has hidden from the system during his incarceration.

Bauer sets the stage for a well-paced, compelling thriller. Her descriptions carry the details of place and the weight of contained emotion. By shifting between the perspectives of Steven and Arnold Avery, Bauer creates a pending train-wreck of intersecting obsessions.
Delving beneath the hideous dermis of the pedophile, she succeeds in resolving the authorial dilemma of creating a villain who is also a fully formed character. With Steven, too, she digs below the surface to create depth. Steven is not an heroic child. Mediocre in school, beset by bullies, bullied by his best friend, alternately neglected and scolded by his mother, all Steven has going for him is his conviction that finding the body of his uncle will right the upended life of his family.
Bauer’s character development falters a bit in the depiction of the secondary characters. Steven’s mother is drawn as a tired single mother moving bitterly through a series of failed relationships. However, we truly see her only in one line. “So Lettie worked on a shell of anger and rebellion to protect the soft center of herself which was fourteen and scared and missed her brother and her mother in equal measure, as if both had been snatched from her on that warm July evening.” I would have also liked to see more of Steven’s nan. Though the loss of her son propels the story and drives the dysfunction of Steven’s family, we see her only through brief glimpses of action. These tantalizing scenes are strong enough to make me want more of “Poor Mrs. Peters.”
Throughout the first two thirds of the novel, Bauer displays an assured grasp of plot and pacing. However, as the novel nears its climax, she introduces a few plot elements that seem unnecessary, contrived, or both. She pulls the lineage of Mason Dingle back into the story in a scene that feels artificial and does not appear to be necessary to the plot. The few scenes with Avery just prior to the final conflict tend to ramble and do not do justice to the captivating ending.
In the final analysis, Blacklands is a spare, finely drawn thriller that lures and compels, catching the reader in a tug-of-war between the bleak evil of loss and the redemptive hope of a young boy.

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