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