Blacklands by Belinda Bauer
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 the opening paragraph of Blacklands, the debut novel that won this year’s (2010) CWA Gold Dagger, and deservedly so. The story is that of Steven Lamb, the boy in the opening paragraph, who lives a relatively impoverished life, both materially and emotionally, in a small Exmoor village. Steven lives with his Nan, mother Lettie, younger brother Davey and has experienced a succession of “uncles” passing through (two of whom fathered Steven and Davey). His mother is tense and irascible, always distracted (probably about money), whereas his Nan spends most of her time looking out of the window, barely acknowledging Steven, the outsider in the little family. We soon learn that underlying the family dynamics is the fact that Steven’s real uncle, Billy (Lettie’s sister), disappeared when he was a bit younger that Steven is now. It transpires that he was abducted and presumed killed by Arnold Avery, who is now in prison serving a life sentence for murdering some other children whose bodies he buried on the moor.
Nobody is allowed into Billy’s room, which is kept exactly as it was when he disappeared. Steven becomes obsessed with the idea that if he finds his uncle’s body, his Nan will stop being sad and the family will become close. He spends most of his time outside school in this fruitless task, making a map of the places he’s dug up. After an incident involving his friend Lewis and some Lego, Steven learns the bare facts of Billy’s presumed death from his mother, and conceives the idea of writing to Avery to find the location of the “grave”. Thus begins an extraordinary campaign between the boy and the prisoner, who can only write the most banal, brief letters to each other, but who communicate on a far deeper, more intimate level. Who will “win” this secret, psychological war? Each is determined in pursuit of his goal, but inevitably one will outwit the other.
The novel’s appeal lies not only in this intensely strategic exchange, but also in the depiction of life in a small village among a deprived family, and community, in twenty-first century England. The book is full of telling little details: the effect on Steven of some unusual praise from a teacher; a visit by Steven and his brother to the library in the local town; the ritualised interactions of Steven and Lewis; and Uncle Jude’s attempts at gardening.
I loved the book, though it is not a “crime” novel in the usual sense. Quite a bit of it is from the point of view of Avery, the child killer, but the author maintains a tone of neutral interest that succeeds in avoiding the usual pitfalls of novelistic representations of such people, making the reader interested in Avery’s part in the drama, while not having to become embroiled in the details of his revolting crimes. Towards the end I felt there were a couple of deviations from believability (a section in the prison and subsequently) and in its otherwise admirably cool yet sympathetic and deeply empathetic portrait of Steven in his community environment. Without a doubt, thought the book’s main success is in its portrayal of Steven, who very much reminds me of Harry Potter in his serious modesty, in his feeling that he’s not very good at anything, and in his analytical tenaciousness against what seem to him to be impossible odds. (Right at the end of the novel, an explicit comparison is made, which I felt unnecessary.) Overwhelmingly, though, I admire the achievement of the author for this well-constructed, observant and insightful book, not least because it is her first novel.