(Kindle Edition, London: Corgi Books, 2010)
In Belinda Bauer’s marvellous debut novel the faint line between the ‘exploratory’ and the ‘exploitative’ is erased and redrawn time and again. Like a few other female writers (A.M. Homes, Alice Sebold) Bauer has chosen to anchor a significant part of her narrative in the murky terrain of the paedophilic consciousness. There is in fact a slight affinity between Homes’ The End of Alice and Bauer’s Blacklands, as both novelists make much of an epistolary device that brings the transgressor directly into contact with the renewed potential for transgression. In Homes’ novel the paedophile, Chappy, enters into correspondence with a young woman, who is about to seduce an adolescent boy and wants to share her perverse pleasure with him. Bauer’s novel, on the other hand, sees the adolescent boy at the heart of the narrative send letters to the convicted murderer of his uncle (killed when he was just 11 years old) to try to find out where this man buried his Uncle’s body. A significant part of the ‘danger’ in Bauer’s novel comes from this original take on seduction, as her protagonist unwittingly (and sometimes all too knowingly) begins to press all the right buttons in the paedophiles mind. It is both a daring illustration of the implicit complicity between paedophile and victim, something that our selective ‘unsexing’ of the child shows we are far too unwilling to broach, and a fascinating improvisation upon the human grief and inexpressible loss that haunts the extended victims of one of the most infamous cases in British criminal history.
Blacklands follows the troubling explorations of an adolescent boy called Steven Lamb, who over three long, dreary years, digs away relentlessly on Exmoor, trying to uncover the body of the Uncle he never knew, and who remains one of the undiscovered victims of a convicted paedophile called Arnold Avery. Lamb’s single-minded and secretive pursuit of this goal is motivated by the belief that discovering his Uncle’s body will finally heal some of the gaping wounds in his family life, allowing both his grandmother and mother to restart their stalled existences. At a loss as to how to achieve this aim, particularly with so much moorland to cover, Steven enters into a covert correspondence with Avery, who is being detained at a low-security prison in Dartmoor, having been on his ‘best behaviour’ for close to eighteen years. What ensues is a similar cat and mouse exercise in desire and power as that which Homes details between Chappy and his unnamed female correspondent in The End of Alice. Steven is unaware exactly what kind of spark his coy, careful and cryptic letters ignite in Avery, whilst Arnold is left in the dark as to Steven’s reasons for specifically needing to know what happened to one of his many victims. Taking this disturbingly fresh approach to the havoc reaped by the paedophilic transgression, Bauer then clearly demonstrates her confident mastery of narrative pacing, by gradually bringing the two halves of her broken narrative (Steven and Avery’s mutual longing and frustration, just to different ends) together inexorably, as if no other satisfactory conclusion could have been reached, a weird echo of the tar trap of historical fate so many of her characters seem to be oozing their way through.
What makes Bauer’s novel truly compelling, running against the grain of the author’s mentioned, both of whom engage in ‘fantastic’ narrative devices, is the robustly ‘realistic’ manner in which she delves into the dank and dreary Devonshire landscape and the troubled and impoverished life of her young protagonist. This fictional ‘reality’ is so powerfully rendered, at times, seeming uncomfortably authentic, that it most keenly evokes Ken Loach’s 1969 adaptation of Barry Hines’ A Kestrel for a Knave, the painfully effective Kes. A large part of this ‘authenticity’ is derived from Bauer’s proximity to, and clear knowledge of, the landscape (she now lives just across the Severn in Wales), as well as the meticulous research carried out into the actual working procedures of prisons – a particularly striking feature of the novel is the way in which it stays clear of, and in fact carefully corrects, the kind of cliched nonsense beloved of jailbreak movies. However, perhaps the single most important decision that Bauer has made when plotting Steven’s narrative route to Avery, is the one that is defined by her inspiration for the novel, namely her subtle hijacking of the horrific legacy of two of Britain’s most notorious child killers, Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, The Moors Murderers.
In her appended author’s note Bauer talks about this initial spark for her novel coming when she “saw the mother of a long-murdered child on TV and started to wonder about the impact of crimes such as Avery’s, how they affect people for years, lifetimes – maybe even generations.”. The long-murdered child Bauer referred to was Keith Bennett, whilst the mother being interviewed was Winnie Johnson, a woman who has effectively given her life over to finding the body of her murdered son. In the case of The Moors Murders there is the weight of 45 years of anger, grief, loss and pain to consider and Mrs. Peters’ 20 years of slow torture is clearly a cautious imagining of how such an unresolved history can cast a generational burden upon individuals. In a similar fashion Bauer is using the readers historical knowledge to lend her own novel a tentative tragedy, tapping in to those previous crimes to invest the carefully portrayed fantasy worlds of Shipcott (no such place exists in Exmoor) and Longmoor (more likely Dartmoor) with added verisimilitude. As much as Bauer is at pains to distance herself from retreading factual material, Avery’s gleefully assured narcissism and single-mindedness would appear to be similar to that of Brady, as is the unusual bisexual preferences of his perversion. For figures like Avery (and Brady) the detail of paramount importance is innocence, and more importantly the power they invest themselves with when destroying it.
Bauer has brought together narrative, character and location to outline the major themes of her novel incredibly effectively. The bleakness, the cold, soul-sucking climate of the moors acts as a poetic evocation of the mortification of Steven’s family, making it seem almost a miracle that Steven and his younger brother Davey have been born at all, into a private world so suffused with death and decay. As I’ve previously suggested Steven operates very much like a modern-day Billy Casper (from Kes), whose lonely diggings upon the moor are the sole thing that appears to give his life purpose, whilst at the same time showing a parental neglect that stems from the historical atrophy simultaneously propelling Steven out onto the ‘blacklands’. The inevitability of the narrative does nothing to diminish the powerful conclusion to the novel, particularly as the two characters that are coming together need each other so desperately and for such wildly different reasons.
Quiet associations are what Bauer excels at, creating what appear to be transparent prose images, whilst infusing them with a deceptively strong thematic substance. These can be observed in moments such as when Avery reimagines Exmoor and gradually fixates on the burial sites of his victims, which in turn echoes as the burial mounds of the victim’s families and, perhaps, a nation’s trust; or when Steven works on a map of South Africa in geography and then begins to consider the history of hunting and trapping, how so much life ended up in holes in the ground, becoming worm food, then mineral deposits and then disinterred graves of only archaeological interest. One of the most effective of these moments comes when Avery escapes from Longmoor:
Toby had been the second bench he’d made and was not as strong as Yasmin, which was the fifth. But both were strong enough. After a couple of false starts when his weight threw the balance off and he teetered dangerously, Arnold Avery scaled the wooden tower named for his child victims, kicked them away without even glancing behind him, and then dropped carefully from the top of the wall on to the wide open expanse of Dartmoor. (Locations 3013-3016)
Not only do we have a sense of what exact purpose these benches have served Avery during his incarceration, but we also are now privy to the unsatiable nature at work within him. The memorialised pleasures of the mind are nothing compared to the possibility of the freedom to obtain fresh memories. The individual children mean nothing to him, they are merely sources and sights of pleasure (or in the case of the bereaved family, atrocity).
Bauer’s debut novel deserves to be read, enjoyed and considered, as it is an exquisite rendering of a childhood spent in the shadow of aching grief and loss. Although it intelligently shies away from the kind of crass sensationalism that could be expected of any novel about a moors-obsessed child killer, it doesn’t pursue the easy option of outright demonisation when portraying the manipulative energies of Avery. The careful deconstruction of the thrall of history, to which humanity finds itself forever looking for clues, is astutely carried out as Steven Lamb and Arnold Avery close in upon their certain encounter. As Laura Wilson states in her review of the novel:
As well as detailing the frustrating powerlessness of childhood, Bauer also paints a vivid portrait of the rupturing effect of a child’s murder upon a family, with its aftermath of fractured, stunted people with only one reference point in their lives.
It is this atmosphere of utter petrification that lingers longest in the memory, of ‘blacklands’ that house only the bones of lives long departed, if not quite over.