In The Spotlight: Belinda Bauer’s Blacklands

Hello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Crimes don’t impact just the victim and the perpetrator. They also impact the victim’s family, and that effect can last for a very long time. To see how this works, let’s turn the spotlight today on Belinda Bauer’s debut novel, Blacklands.

As the story begins, we are introduced to twelve-year-old Steven Lamb. He lives with his younger brother, Davey, his mother, Lettie, and his Nan, Gloria, in a small, working-class house in the Exmoor town of Shipcott. But this isn’t a typical working-class family. Nineteen years ago, Steven’s uncle (and Gloria’s son), Billy Peters, went missing and never returned. It’s always been believed that he was abducted and killed by a man named Arnold Avery, who’s now in prison for other child murders. But Billy’s body was never found, and the family has been left bereft and without answers.

Steven feels the family’s pain; it plays out in many different ways. And he wants his family to be whole. So, he decides to dig on the moor and see if he can find Billy’s body. At least then, he thinks, he’ll get some recognition, and be able to put his family together. He doesn’t have any luck, but then he gets another, more daring idea. He decides to write to Arnold Avery in prison, and try to find out from him where Uncle Billy is buried.

Thus begins a correspondence between Steven and Avery. As time goes on, it becomes almost a sort of ‘cat and mouse’ game, with each of them trying to stake out a position of power. Steven doesn’t tell anyone in his family about what’s going on, thinking that he can manage it on his own, and that he doesn’t want to hurt, especially, his grandmother any more than has already happened. As the story moves on, the stakes get higher and higher. And in the end, we see that Steven’s choice to try to find out the truth about his uncle’s death will have a real impact on everyone.

The two main characters in this novel are Steven Lamb and Arnold Avery. So, the story is told from their perspectives (third person, past tense). We see how each one reacts to the exchange of letters, and we learn about what life is like for each.

Steven never met his uncle, but Billy Peters’ death has had a profound effect on his life. His family is fractured; and, although his mother does try to take care of him and Davey, she’s got her own issues. And his Nan is still grieving her son’s loss. That loss has affected Lettie, too. She’s felt ‘second best,’ since all the attention was on her brother. And, perhaps without being aware of it, that plays out in her relationships with her own children, as she prefers Davey over Steven. There’s certainly not a lot of joy in the house, and little affection. And, with both Gloria and Lettie preoccupied with their own grief, the two young boys don’t get a much loving attention.

The family also faces harsh economic realities. There’s not much money, and very few treats. The house is adequate, but not particularly nice; and there’s little left over for new things. Steven doesn’t get a lot of support at home, and has few things that the other boys at school would envy. So it’s not hard to imagine how he’s become the target of bullies. That, too, makes his life miserable. Steven is a brave boy, and his ability to stay tough becomes important. But he is still just a boy who would very much like a loving mum.

For his part, Arnold Avery has become accustomed to prison life. Through his eyes, we see what daily life is like in a contemporary men’s prison. It’s not a pleasant place, and Avery has an especially difficult time of it, because he’s in for raping and killing children. In the world of prison, nothing is lower than that; in fact, he’s assigned guards to escort him to meals and so on so that he won’t be attacked or killed. Still, he’s working on being a model prisoner, because he has plans for after he gets out – plans that he has no intention of sharing with his psychiatrist. Avery has contempt for just about everyone else, seeing them all as his intellectual inferiors. He is not in the least bit sympathetic, but he does have a way of getting people to talk to him and believe him, and it’s possible to see how he could get his victims to relax around him.

The story takes place in Dartmoor and Exmoor, and that moor setting is an important element in this novel. Moors can be beautiful. But they can also be bleak, lonely, and subject to very unstable weather patterns. There are bogs and sometimes very dense fogs that can completely disorient even someone who lives nearby. That context adds to the atmosphere of the novel.

There isn’t a lot of ‘onscreen’ brutal violence in the novel. But readers who do not like stories in which children come to harm will want to know that they have in this novel. Bauer doesn’t give detailed descriptions, but she doesn’t gloss over what’s happened, either.

Blacklands is the story of a family struggling to cope, even years after the tragedy that devastated them. It offers a look at the crime from the perspective of a brave young boy who wishes he were a lot older and more mature than he is, and who just wants to have a real family. And it takes place in some of the UK’s more beautiful, and more dangerous, natural settings. But what’s your view? Have you read Blacklands? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

 
 
 

Coming Up On In The Spotlight
 

Monday, 20 November/Tuesday, 21 November – Dead Lemons – Finn Bell

Monday, 27 November/Tuesday, 28 November – Days Are Like Grass – Sue Younger

Monday, 4 December/Tuesday, 5 December – The Student Body – Simon Wyatt

19 Comments

Filed under Belinda Bauer, Blacklands

19 responses to “In The Spotlight: Belinda Bauer’s Blacklands

  1. I have wanted to try something by this author, Margot. There are some things about this book that sound very interesting and some I don’t think I would like. Thanks for the overview and introduction to the author.

    • In some ways, Tracy, it’s definitely not an easy book at all to read. But Bauer depicts beautifully the setting and the family dynamics. If you do read this one, I hope you’ll be glad that you did.

  2. What a relief to see that you have a book I’ve read in your spotlight this week so for once my TBR is safe! It says something for the captivating nature of this author’s writing that even though I read this book quite a few years ago, I remember many of the small details from it – she is one of the best contemporary crime writers around in my (very humble) opinion. Great post and thank you for reminding me of this great book

    • I think she’s incredibly talented, too, Cleo. It really did take a deft hand to create this story without it being overwhelming, I think. And I like it very much that she used some subtle touches, too. It’s not often that an author really depicts a family in this situation, but Bauer did it very well. And thanks very much for the kind words. I’m glad your TBR is safe (for the moment… 😉 )

  3. This was a rather harrowing read – but she is a very talented writer. I need to read the 1-2 of hers which I haven’t yet. I haven’t loved all of them, but she is always interesting and always different (and yet recognisable, if you know what I mean).

    • I do, indeed, know what you mean, Marina Sofia. And I see what you mean about it being a harrowing read. It is. And yet, for me, anyway, it wasn’t done for shock value. And I do love the way she depicts the moors. I need to catch up on a few of hers, too…

  4. This sits on my shelf. I am likely to pick it up now. Thanks.

    • If you do get the chance to read it, Patti, I hope you’ll be glad you did. It’s by no means a light, easy read. Marina Sofia is right about its being harrowing in places. But it’s got a strong sense of atmosphere, and some memorable characters.

  5. This is one of only two (I think) books of Bauer’s that I’ve still to read. I ‘found’ her at her third book and have read everything she’s brought out since then but still haven’t backtracked to the earliest ones. This one is already on my TBR though, so at least I don’t have to add one today… 😉 She’s a great writer and when she’s on form, as she usually is, there’s no-one currently to beat her.

    • I’ll get you next time, FictionFan! 😉 – I agree with you about Bauer’s talent. She’s got quite a lot of talent, and has created all sorts of memorable characters. I do recommend this one when you get to it. It’s got a powerful sense of place, culture and atmosphere. I’l be keen to know what you think of this one, since it’s her debut…

  6. Col

    I read this one a few years ago. As ever I’m in awe of your powers of recall, you’ve remembered so much more than I did!

  7. Kathy D.

    I would like to read one of Bauer’s books, but not this one. Can’t deal with violence against children. Can you or your commenters suggest another book by her?

    • Spade & Dagger

      I’ve read Rubbernecker and Facts of Life & Death – she is a deceptively simple-styled writer which makes the books absolute page-turners for me. However, her subject matter can be so easily appreciated as possible in reality, that the books are rather heart-rending (especially concerning children).

    • I’d suggest Rubbernecker, Kathy. It doesn’t describe any violence against children.

  8. Reblogged this on Author Don Massenzio and commented:
    Check out the book, Blacklands, by Belinda Bauers, as featured in the spotlight from the Confessions of a Mystery Novelist blog

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