After covering Stephen King’s Joyland yesterday, I thought I would write about another recent novel with a young protagonist, Blacklands, by Belinda Bauer. Here is the opening paragraph:
Exmoor dripped with dirty bracken, rough, colourless 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 most 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.
This is a remarkably adept debut novel from journalist and screenwriter Belinda Bauer. Blacklands is set on Exmoor, and details the cat-and-mouse struggle between 12-year-old Steven Lamb and serial killer Arnold Avery. Avery is a child-murder who, 18 years before, murdered Steven’s 11-year-old Uncle Billy, and never revealed where he hid the body.
This crime, committed long before Steven was even born, has soured the young boy’s life. His grandmother spends her time watching at the front window, waiting for her missing child to return. Her daughter Lettie – Uncle Billy’s sister and Steven’s mother – lives with her with her own children, and the atmosphere is poisoned by grief, withheld love and emotional impoverishment.
Cut off from her mother’s love and weaned on misery, Lettie has never been able to form any lasting attachments, and both Steven and his younger brother Davey have had a succession of “uncles,” but no father. Uncle’s Billy room is never disturbed, and it sits there, a decaying shrine in a dark and damp house at the edge of the moor.
Young Steven, drowning in this toxic atmosphere, decides to do the only thing that makes sense to him – he will dig up the moor until he finds Uncle Billy’s body, hopefully closing this chapter of their lives and moving to a brighter tomorrow.
With that in mind, Steven dutifully digs and digs – finding nothing. It is only then that he gets the idea of writing Avery, asking for clues to where the body of his uncle might lie.
Of course, writing to young Steven is too much excitement for Avery, who manages to escape and make his way to the moor…
Bauer never grants Steven with abilities that are out of line with a young boy; in fact, the entire exchange with Avery comes about simply because one of his teachers (usually too oblivious to really know who Steven is), remarks in passing that he writes good letters. Steven is a boy of average intelligence but too-little money: his family is the working poor and their drab lives are not improved by treats or possessions that others take for granted. It also shows a decaying England, still ravaged by decades of Toryism run amok.
However, the great pleasure of this rather grim tale is in watching Steven grow. We watch as he grapples to understand the adult world, moving from potential victim to, ultimately, Avery’s nemesis.
Better still are the touches that show how deeds long since past ruin lives, poison relationships, and deeply affect our children. Acts of violence do not happen in a vacuum, and the damage done by murder only begins with the dead body.
Though structured as a thriller, Blacklands is really a novel about murder, how it affects families and communities, and how cruelty sometimes builds a momentum of its own. Though at times it is grim stuff, Blacklands is well worth reading.