Book Review:- A Partridge in A Pear Tree by Stuart MacBride

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Crime at Christmas Series: 12 Days of Winter (No. 1 – A Partridge in a Pear Tree)

(Kindle Editon, London: HarperCollinsPublishers, 2011)


Stuart MacBride’s experiment with e-publication seems at once to be embracing the modern zeitgeist and also harking back to a much older early twentieth century tradition. The internet allows established writers to hawk their wares in bite-sized nuggets, for a token fee, without the need to worry about excessive, nigh on prohibitive, publication costs. In this case MacBride is selling off short stories at 49p a pop. However, there is an overarching design to these story publications, which will inevitably suggest the form of a printed volume, should these e-book editions prove successful. Similar to old Edwardian writers such as M.R. James and Oliver Onions, MacBride has put together a cavalcade of Christmas themed grotesqueries. Whereas the likes of James and Onions foregrounded the ghostly or the weird and left the detective elements deep within the mechanics of their stories, MacBride, as a popular crime writer, foregrounds the criminal elements (thus the Crime at Christmas moniker), whilst simultaneously applying a gloss of his favoured gruesome violence. What the reader is left with are little grim nuggets of MacBride, more like novelistic set pieces than satisfying short stories.

The first of MacBride’s projected twelve short stories, comprising the 12 Days of Winter, involves a 21 stone petty thief and cat burglar called Billy Partridge. Together with a friend called Andy ‘Twitch’ McKay, they are trying to steal a Monet painting from a well-to-do elderly couple in the fictional town of Oldcastle, where much of MacBride’s work is set, supposedly somewhere between Dundee and Aberdeen. The story is particularly slight, being barely sixteen Kindle pages long, giving very little character detail (a failing of MacBride’s novelist background) for the reader to get their teeth into. As well as this the plot isn’t particularly exceptional, revolving, as it does, around nothing more than a failed robbery. MacBride’s robust writing style that is perfectly suited to longer dissections of the grim vicissitudes of a criminal case, here seems rather lacking in the subtlety and precision necessary for the successful execution of a shorter fictional form.

Yet probing beneath the surface of the seemingly utilitarian prose, there are some nicely articulated descriptive passages, like toward the start of the story where the reader is introduced to the awkward physicality of Billy:

his XXL designer jeans smeared with moss and dirt. That’s what he got for trusting Twitch to bring the sodding stepladders. (Locations 13-21)

This manages to suitably conflate the filth marking Partridge’s clothing with the soft curse of ‘sodding’, creating a little visual image of the northern Scottish rural landscape in the process. Later on, when describing the posh area of Oldcastle that the house they’re breaking into is located in, there is a nice demarcation of haves and have-nots in the nouns used:

where Oldcastle’s old money lived. With a fine view of the Bellows and the Kings River, Castle Hill was not for the likes of Fat Billy Partridge and Andy ‘Twitch’ McKay. (Locations 32-43)

MacBride’s writing is always far more nuanced than it is given credit for and despite the narrowness of the narrative arc he manages to work away at a central theme, or concern, that adds depth to proceedings.

MacBride essentially attempts to unfold a little fable about the ‘value’ of possessions. On one side of the divide is Twitch, who seems to be entirely focused on those things of obvious material value. Whereas Billy, although initially participating in the burglary out of fear of what the gangster Dillon might do to him, expresses some inarticulate yearning for aesthetic value and the meaning that such aesthetic value might give. This division is clearly highlighted in the section in which Billy comes across the Monet for the first time:

A pear tree stood in the middle of a canvas as big as a widescreen telly – the leaves a mixture of delicate greens and dark blue, tinged with purple; the sky a riot of vermillion, ultramarine and gold as the sun set. And in the branches a single pear glistened. It was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen in his life. (Locations 101-110)

In this section the grammar of the passage would suggest the narrator is alternating between precise aesthetic detail and bland commercial approximation, either as a direct expression of the central motif of the story, or rather as an attempt at registering Billy’s own understanding of what he gazes upon, as filtered through his GCSE-level appreciation of art. MacBride could well be making a sly dig at the way in which modern culture seems to bring the popular and the particular together with ever greater frequency. This notion is further reinforced later in the narrative when the old gentleman owner of the house, whilst in pursuit of the two burglars, doesn’t scream for the return of his Monet, but rather for the return of his “bloody laptop!” (Locations 152-61). Again this could be read in at least two ways, either the old gentleman couldn’t possibly imagine a couple of ‘small-time hoods’ appreciating the aesthetic or commercial value of a Monet, or, moreover, modern culture is shown, once again, as one in which the values of commercial consumerism dominate aesthetic concerns. Not only is the gangster, Dillon, not deserving of this artwork, but potentially its monied owner also.

The set-up for the narrative is lengthy and not entirely satisfying, as the ‘shock’ denouement comes almost too abruptly for it to resonate. MacBride is careful enough as a writer to nicely pattern the Christmas setting, particularly emphasising, on three separate occasions, the white lights which will ultimately serve as the grim reaper at the story’s climax. Throughout there is an insistence on the commercial aspect of modern Christmas, from Harry Potter gifts to gaudy decorations, that even amongst such economically disparate backgrounds as Billy’s and the Castle Hill residents’ has come to predominate. Although not a short narrative masterpiece, MacBride’s first festive foray at least holds forth the prospect of further darkly subversive little riches to follow. It also offers up a nice comparison between the overly cultured ghost-investigation narratives of James, which were so popular within their own period, and the grittier work preferred of present day English language fiction – even at its more fantastical. James’ work showed a preference for a certain morality and ‘high-cultural’ value, whilst MacBride’s simply demonstrates the less clearly defined moral concerns of the present-day, along with the cultural hotchpotch of ‘high’ and ‘low’ aesthetic concerns that cannot even be perceived as defining of modern culture any longer.

Film Review:- Speak (2004)


Dir:- Jessica Sharzer

Starr:- Kristen Stewart, Michael Angarano, Hallee Hirsh, Steve Zahn, Elizabeth Perkins, D.B. Sweeney

Kristen Stewart really excels at creating portraits of damaged and introverted teens. Away from the hysteria of the Twilight saga she has managed to put together an interesting and varied CV that takes in stints as a tomboyish girl in The Safety of Objects, Jodie Foster’s wilful young daughter in Panic Room, a vulnerable young musician in Into the Wild and a girl who has all manner of problems relating to her family situation in the delightful comedy Adventureland. In this remarkable Showtime adaptation of Laurie Halse Anderson’s 1999 young adult novel about a freshman high school girl’s struggles with depression in the aftermath of a horrendous rape, Stewart, despite being only 14 at the time of filming, inhabits the lead role with a heartbreaking blend of confused melancholia, inarticulate rage and bruised stoicism. It is the kind of performance that points to a child star having the capacity to move seamlessly into more adult roles when the time comes, reminiscent of the aforementioned Foster’s early turns in Taxi Driver and The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane.

Halse’s novel was a New York Times bestseller at the turn of the new century and received strong critical praise for its powerful portrayal of the psychological suffering a rape victim has to endure, long after the physical effects of the assault have passed into memory. Sharzer on her debut, and to date only, feature goes to great lengths to remain true to the spirit of the novel, whilst fleshing out elements of the central character Melinda Sordino’s school existence to make the adaptation a more intensely visual experience. By and large Sharzer work is very successful, showing a real flair for poetic imagery, from the opening scene of Joyce Sordino (where has Elizabeth Perkins been hiding since Big) stumbling upon Melinda in her bedroom with a twisted and ghoulish array of stitchmarks painted around her mouth, to a marvellous sequence in a hospital ward that utilises shadows and half-glimpsed figures to elaborate Melinda’s intense feelings of alienation. Unlike many post-Clueless high school movies Sharzer resists painting the teenage landscape in a ‘wacky’ array of day-glo MTV hues, whilst simultaneously imbuing the film with an off-beat, hyperreal visual quality that feels similar to the deliberately dated feel Noah Baumbach applies to The Squid and the Whale.

Melinda’s ordeal is shown in snippets of flashback, that appear to work as if they were the resurfacing of suppressed memories. During the protracted and intensely claustrophobic rape sequence Melinda is awoken by her mother, who unwittingly assumes Melinda is merely having a nightmare. The relationship between mother and daughter appears to be a slightly awkward one, with Melinda seemingly unable to communicate her depressed state to Joyce. Her father Jack (D.B. Sweeney) has his own problems, yet he and Melinda seem to have a more immediate and direct bond, that on a number of occasions in the movie seems close to enabling that much-needed moment of communication to occur. Intriguingly, as would seem to often be the case, the parents don’t actually become actively concerned about their daughter’s behaviour until her grades begin to fall away in school. At the moment when their future ambitions for their daughter are put on the line, her parents become more involved in her day-to-day life, but by this point Melinda’s angst and pain have become so deep-rooted that only direct intervention seems likely to prompt a moment of catharsis.

Melinda’s reaction to the rape is at the core of the movie. In the immediate aftermath of the assault Melinda stumbles back into the party and calls the police, only to say nothing to the emergency call operator. As a result of this inability to verbalise Melinda becomes lost in the confusion of frantic teenage bodies trying to elude the police, who have responded to her call and are now breaking up the party. Amongst the group of friends she went to the party with, her closest buddy Rachel (a nicely snippy turn from Hallee Hirsh) ensures that everybody knows who has wrecked the party. Melinda walks home in a shoeless daze (a journey that is beautifully rendered in some glacial flashback sequences) to an empty house and says nothing more about it to anyone. In fact on starting high school in the fall, she finds herself ostracised from her friends and detested by the rest of her peers, with the exception of Heather (Allison Siko) who pals up with her mainly out of a lack of other available friend options. Amidst this atmosphere of cold and rather savage teenage disdain Melinda turns inwards, where she is constantly reminded of her pain, thus prompting her decision to remove herself from all non-essential conversation. This refusal to speak goes almost unnoticed by all but the bullish and bigoted social sciences teacher Mr. Neck (a suitably arrogant and conceited Robert John Burke).

Sharzer manages to transfer many of the novel’s astute observations about teachers into the film. The inevitably free-spirited turn from Steve Zahn as the art teacher Mr. Freeman (all in the name), is made to be everything that inspiring Hollywood mentor roles post-Dead Poet’s Society just shouldn’t be. Mr. Freeman is introduced into the film in a painfully embarrassing (and very funny) scene whereby he tries to enthuse the students into saying something, without having much to say himself. Throughout the film we see Zahn’s figure much more absorbed in his own trials and tribulations, just like most of the other figures in Melinda’s life, but at least he is able to offer her a partial outlet, a kind of refuge. The art classes he teaches become Melinda’s main mode of reconnecting with her damaged self and the project she constructs in a secret hidey-hole of a janitor’s closet, based on the one word ‘tree’, help her to develop a means of expressing the dread and anxiety that have virtually incapacitated her.

The slow, painful process of rebirth (which finds a wonderful metaphor in the planting of seeds, with all of their painful suggestiveness) is somewhat hindered by the daily presence of Melinda’s assailant within the school itself. The gangling frame of Andy Evans (Eric Lively) is used as an implicit physical threat throughout the movie, creating two particularly uncomfortable sequences in which he momentarily traps Melinda and imposes himself either physically or verbally upon her. The arrogance of this young man seems to know no limits and Lively’s performance has just the right mixture of cowardliness and exploitative aggression to make an unthinking  audience aware of just how horrid an act rape really is. For Melinda the rape effectively consumes her life, yet for Andy it barely even registers as an event, particularly as he appears to have gotten away with it. The film really does pose the question as to how many such rapes go unreported, or unacknowledged. Andy’s hubris in dating Melinda’s former best friend Rachel, is ultimately the final provocation. Yet even the film’s big emotional reveal sequence, is expertly handled by Sharzer, with Melinda once again unable to verbalise her ordeal.

A small mention must be made of the sterling work by Michael Angarano (from Dear Wendy) in the role of Melinda’s outspoken classmate Dave Petrakis. It is his combative stance with the absurdly ignorant pronouncements upon immigration made by Mr. Neck, that first indicate to Melinda the need for her to find a voice. Petrakis serves as not only an entertaining character, but perhaps a coherent example of what is most frequently lacking within ‘civilised’ societies, namely the courage to stand up for one’s convictions, regardless of the oppressive tactics of the opposition. Where so many of the adults in the film seem defeated and impotent, it is Petrakis who gently offers up one way out of the morass Melinda has been dumped in. Although he might have helped her find her feet, in the end it is Melinda who walks back toward her life, fighting. Just as the harassed English teacher known as ‘Hairwoman’ (Leslie Lyles) on Valentines day rediscovers her poise, purpose and self-confidence. These quietly effective juxtapositions confirm Sharzer as a directorial talent worthy of further opportunities in the near future, as well as adding further emotional depth to an impressive feature.

Film Review:- The Safety of Objects (2001)

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Dir:- Rose Troche

Starr:- Glenn Close, Dermot Mulroney, Patricia Clarkson, Timothy Olyphant, Joshua Jackson, Kristen Stewart, Mary Kay Place

AM Homes is one of the most daring, innovative and skilled contemporary American writers. Her 1990 short story collection The Safety of Objects featured a uniquely surreal, sensuous and serene take on the suburban American experience, that ostensibly dealt with the different degrees of disconnection people need to feel to make their way through a ‘normal’ life. Remarkably it pinpointed ‘ownership’ as the seemingly insurmountable obstacle in many of the character’s lives. Attachment to things, the desire to possess and own, the obsessive need to have, these are the superficial drivers of most of the characters featured within the ten stories. Yet the things that they fixate upon are invariably the things which stunt their inner lives, haunt their waking moments, or prove stubbornly elusive. From a guy called Frank who desperately desires the SUV that is being given away as part of a ridiculous competition in a mall, to a mother of a comatosed son whose desperate need for him to live has blinded her to the toll his miserable existence has taken on her family, these are seemingly ‘normal’ people, who have become reliant on external totems to keep themselves functioning.

The 2001 film based on these stories, isn’t so much an adaptation as a skewered reimagining. Rose Troche, the director of cult lesbian romance Go Fish, takes Robert Altman’s lead and condenses some of the main thematic concerns and characters from Homes’ short stories forming a single, unified narrative arc, of overlapping family concerns. Directly importing some of the characters from Homes’ stories and embellishing on them a little, Troche establishes an insular suburban enclave, a bland island within a bland ocean, occupied by four families (the Golds, the Jenningses, the Trains and the Christianson’s). In an impressive intro sequence Troche presents us with a series of blank white dolls houses, from out of which parade an equally blank and white assortment of dolls. These are representations of each of the families that feature heavily within the story, as well as the gardener and friend of these families, Randy. Three out of the four families are directly connected by an event that has taken place in the past, with tragic consequences for the future. Only the Trains, new arrivals to the neighbourhood, are unaware of what ties the other families together.

Fans of Homes’ stories will recognise elements of plot from each of them, but Troche has done her very best to integrate them so that they adhere to a steady narrative arc, even when, as in the case of the car contest, they appear at their most episodic. Unlike with Altman’s Short Cuts, which had the whole of Los Angeles to play out its interconnected narrative elisions and expansions, The Safety of Objects has far less space to shoehorn all of its disparate stories into. As a result large parts of the film feel overly abstracted, or incredibly forced, mining either Homes’ surrealistic narrative fantasy, or her impressive eye for details that cut to the existential core of a character, but never both of them harmoniously together.

In a bravura twenty-minute opening section Troche cuts between the various different units of the families at a truly dizzying pace, which has the effect of highlighting strongly poetic juxtapositions, such as the exhaling of an orgasm with the inhaling of cigarette smoke, or the reluctant exercise undertaken by one young boy and the inability to move experienced by a comatosed teenager. So much character information rushes past the camera in these opening moments, that it can seem to swamp the viewer down in a chaotic and incomprehensible normality, which is almost certainly what Troche intends. A side effect of this beautifully constructed cinematographic flurry is that the viewer begins to feel their way into the story far more intuitively as the relationships between people become clearer and more apparent. The one family that is awkward in this regard is Dermot Mulroney’s Train family, particularly as Jim’s (Mulroney) wife Susan (Moira Kelly) seems to be a little underdeveloped, as does their daughter Emily (Carly Chalom). By comparison, Jim and Jake (Alex House) are three-dimensional, if highly unusual human specimens. Yet Jake’s piggy-backing on the doll story, although interestingly rendered by the use of an imaginary voiceover and some close puppet work, is nowhere near as satisfying as the genuinely unsettling events of ‘A Real Doll’ – which seem to take their cue from a Roxy Music song. Whilst Jim’s full-blown crisis of confidence manifests itself in the utterly inscrutable coaching of Glenn Close’s Esther Gold, as she tries to win the SUV competition (once again seeking solace in the potential ownership of objects).

These problems of characterisation extend to issues of dialogue, where much of the elegance and élan of Homes’ tightly constructed prose is lost in Troche’s haste to sermonise and explicate her ideas about consumerism and what it means to suburban America. At other points the plot fails to cohere, so that certain characters seemed to be merely gesturing at ideas and motifs (such as Howard Gold’s inability to spend time in the presence of his son, or Bobby Christianson’s bizarre role in the shooting of Jim at the mall). Things often appear messy in the movie, not because the character’s lives are particularly messy, but because the extraneous elements of plot and character haven’t been suitably assimilated and processed. An example of this involves the Gold’s daughter Julie (well-played by Jessica Campbell in an awkward role), who is clearly seen imagining being embraced by her comatosed brother, whilst masturbating on a sun lounger. This is a profound and powerful sequence and yet Julie’s complex relationship with her mother and brother, as illustrated in the fight over possession of the beloved guitar, is never allowed to fully blossom, as perhaps it should.

Although impressively filmed and featuring an excellent cast The Safety of Objects is yet another entry into the increasingly unsatisfying sub-genre of American drama that fixates upon the hidden eccentricities of suburbia, usually as a means to a narrative end. This genre has roots in movies like Mike Nicholl’s The Graduate and Frank Perry’s Burt Lancaster-vehicle The Swimmer. Perhaps the most effective recent entry was Ang Lee’s adaptation of Rick Moody’s superb novel (many of these films have literary sources) The Ice Storm. Whereas that movie managed to play out the incestuous relations between a tight-knit, but cold, group of middle-class American families with a degree of authenticity and poignancy, The Safety of Objects feels much more like the failed attempts at mundane lyricism evidenced in last years 3 Backyards, or the Oscar-friendly Little Children. As a result performances as subtle and restrained as Glenn Close’s get lost in the aimless confusion of the film’s middle section.

A final brief mention must be made for one of the more eccentric choices that Troche makes. In one of Homes’ stories called ‘Looking for Johnny’, a character kidnaps a young 9 year-old boy to stand in for his lost kid brother. This plot is squeezed into the role of Randy (played by Timothy Olyphant) and the kidnapping becomes that of Sam Jennings (a debut performance from a tomboyish Kristen Stewart). Despite the film’s many failures to meaningfully explore some of the dark and sensuous sexuality of Homes’ prose, it manages to do something particularly odd with this plot strand, which as a result of the ambiguous sexual identity of Sam, creates a weird dynamic that doesn’t really exist in the original story, but comes closest to approximating the feel of Homes’ writing. Unfortunately, as with the film as a whole, this interlude quickly comes up against problems of plausibility and, more importantly, a sense of fidelity to what has been revealed of these characters, thus far. Overly ambitious, attempting to both capture the vitality of a very good work of fiction and add layers of emotional depth and insight, Troche’s film sporadically achieves its lofty aims, only for them to somehow break free and prove as elusive as the peace of mind these entrapped characters seek.

Where the Truth Lies, lies the Truth

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Book Review:-  True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey

It’s perhaps the most significant lack of that three-letter article in recent literature. Carey in dispensing with ‘The’ in the title to his slippery, metafictional reworking of the Kelly history and mythology, demonstrates slyly his approach to that most overly lauded virtue – ‘truthfulness’. This avoidance of the definite in the title of the work, is echoed in the manner by which Carey constructs his narrative of the Kelly Gang in fragmentary form, gradually suggesting the ways in which Kelly’s supposed testament could have been altered, edited or generally influenced in an attempt to adjust the ‘reality’ of events – not to forget that the testament itself is Carey’s fictional creation.

The very fact that Carey chooses to focus his undoubted narrative talents on what, for an Australian at least, is a particularly familiar story suggests that Carey is perhaps concerned more with how the story has been told, than in presenting any definitive and accurate summation. A legendary figure such as Ned Kelly is too embroiled in the story of the birth of the Australian nation, for an accurate picture of the person to emerge. The author is aware of this and in subsuming his own voice in the carefully crafted nuances of Kelly’s intelligent, yet uneducated diction, Carey embraces the legend while diminishing the distance between us and the bushranger outlaw.

The novel is presented as a collection of journals – of various size, colour and paper quality – outlining the chronological history of Kelly from his early childhood, to the birth of his daughter and the Glenrowan massacre that saw the police finally bring him and his gang to justice. These journal accounts are presented as the direct voice of Kelly, the man’s testament to his daughter, written presumably as he awaits his execution. The fact that this work is written with his daughter in mind suggests why it is that Kelly erases the curse words and foul language from the text and why he also cloaks the carnal nature of many of the family shenanigans behind a number of sanitised euphemisms. Also present in these journals is a carefully cultivated persona of Kelly as an upright man of slightly muddied morality, who feels himself the victim of a pernicious and conspiratorial police state and to this end it often appears as if Kelly is either wilfully ignorant of events, or extremely slow to register them. The personality that comes off of the pages of these journal entries runs counter to the images presented by the media accounts that are dotted throughout the text and constitute a significant part of the final third of the book. Supposed source material is referenced in the prologue account of Ned Kelly’s last stand and in the return to this event at the book’s close. As well as that we also have the testimony of Thomas Curnow, which conflicts drastically with Kelly’s summation of events within the journals. There is also the insertion of Mary Hearn’s (Kelly’s lover and mother of his daughter) voice into the text in the form of annotations redressing the newspaper accounts of Kelly. Finally the way in which the journals are presented, the fact that they are not present more importantly, brings us back to the divining voice of Carey the author. The journals are artefacts described for us in short paragraphs under each successive chapter heading. The extraneous material has also been sourced from somewhere, or at least made to appear as if sourced and in closing Carey presents a series of acknowledgements thanking various academics, historians, friends and family for their contributions in the research carried out. Is Carey really trying to get at the truth, or is he indulging in a subtle deconstruction of the Kelly mythology which is so bound up in the birth of his homeland?

It is of great significance that Kelly, when not being a lawless brigand and general black sheep, is found to be writing his story. Early in the gang’s enforced outlaw status Kelly shows himself to be keenly aware of the importance of image and also the importance of telling a good story well. On at least three occasions he writes a testament only to place it into the hands of those who side with law and order. At the end of the text we are led to believe that Curnow is actually acting as editor of the grand Kelly opus, despite his role in the Glenrowan massacre. The presence of so many narrative attempts within the actual narrative itself allows Carey some leeway when it comes to presenting Kelly’s voice as intelligent and relatively articulate. The references to R.D. Blackmore’s Lorna Doone go some of the way to informing the texture of the exposition – an adventure story straight out of the early 19th Century. In many ways the book is in a similar vein to those other rabidly egocentric and equally serpentine first-person narratives, such as Banville’s The Book of Evidence, or Nabokov’s Pale Fire. In particular it shares with the latter a supposedly academic origin, that subtly reveals the massive discrepancies between the narrator’s account of things and those other accounts of things that the narrator in his arrogance refers to and dismisses. So convincing is Carey’s narrative ventriloquism that it is quite easy to accept Kelly at his supposed word. But are these really Kelly’s words? Are they not actually authorial approximations of Kelly? Just more layers of mythmaking, beneath which the person himself is left suffocating. After all, Kelly the person ceased the moment that Kelly the legend began. What is perhaps interesting is why it is that our various national cultures require the presence of figures like Kelly? Are nations built from these projections of lawlessness and moral reordering? Cormac McCarthy’s novel No Country for Old Men focuses on this notion, as does Scorsese’s movie Gangs of New York. Myths are cultivated from the excess of culture within a given society. Everything that authority wishes omitted from society is comfortably exercised in story, in narrative, in fable. The myths of the American West, the Australian Outback, Sherwood Forest and the lawless Highlands of Scotland are perhaps expressions of the initiatory impulse that a society in construction must excise to become governable.

This essay was originally published on June 23rd 2010 on my now defunct ‘Imposturous’ blog.

Book Review:- Blacklands by Belinda Bauer

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(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.