This marks the third book I have read by Belinda Bauer. A few things have become abundantly clear. She is very skilled at writing young and innocent characters. Blacklands in no exception. Her novels are coming of age stories wrapped in violence and the loss of innocence. Although this novel receives my lowest mark to date, it is still an exceptional novel and confirms her status a new favorite author.
Steven is young man with a strange and slightly disturbing pastime. Eighteen years previous and before he was born, his uncle Billy, a child himself, went missing. At that time, many kids had gone missing and Arnold Avery, a notorious serial killer, admitted to many of their disappearances. Billy’s disappearance was never solved. As it was always believed that Avery had taken Billy, young Stephen spends his free time digging holes in the area where Avery had buried the bodies. Stephen believes that if he can find the remains of his long missing uncle that the scars his family carries around will begin to heal. The story takes and unexpected turn when Stephen begins a series of correspondence with the jailed killer. In his quest to solve the mystery, Stephen learns lessons about family, love, friendship and fear.
I really do enjoy the young characters that Belinda Bauer creates. She has a keen sense of the mind of the young and it is intriguing to see how she uses the innocent and often flawed thought processes of her characters. Her stories would not work with adult characters at the centre. No one would believe a grown man (without mental illness) would spend his days digging for a dead body yet it is utterly believable when it is a child.
The reader must know in advance that a child protagonist does not mean the story is childish. This is most definitely not for children. The antagonist is a dark and disturbing character. He is a paedophile who has murdered a significant number of young boys. Unlike her later novels, Bauer also delves into the mind of the killer and let me tell you, the thought process of a person like Avery is not at all pleasing.
Having read Rubbernecker and The Facts of Life and Death, I found myself comparing this to her more recent works. It is likely that had I read this one before the other two mentioned, I would have given Blacklands a higher rating. As a first novel, this is an exceptional effort.
As with the other two book of hers which I have read, this is a character novel. It is the characters of Avery and Stephen that are the focus of the story and their thought processes, their actions and the reasoning behind their decisions that make the story. My major complaint is that the characters were less developed than her later novels. It may be that the focus on two points of view in this novel detracted from the overall development.
Stephen often came across as rather flat. While I think I understood his motivation for wandering the land and digging holes, I did not feel that it was fully developed. It seems that all of my recent reads have been character novels and I fell this is a bit lacking overall.
It may be that I am being a bit hard on the author given my enjoyment of her most recent work. In fairness, I would expect to see improvement in later novels. Overall, I did enjoy this story. It was equal parts disturbing and intriguing. While at times Stephen was flat, Avery was always creepy and disturbing. I think that Blacklands is best enjoyed before Bauer’s later offerings. This novel displays enough of her skill for the reader to enjoy the story and her later novels will allow you to enjoy her maturity as a writer.
It is difficult to find commentary on the sex/violence/language content of book if you are interested. I make an effort to give you the information so you can make an informed decision before reading. *Disclaimer* I do not take note or count the occurrences of adult language as I read. I am simply giving approximations.
Scale 1 – Lowest 5 – Highest
Sex – 2
There is a flashback in which Avery exposes himself to a child. The subtext to the story is that Avery sexually assaulted young boys. That said, it is only inferred from the story and there is nothing explicit. Some readers will find the inference to be disturbing but there is no graphic content.
Language – 3
As in most of Bauer’s novels, the young characters use age appropriate language. On a few occasions the characters use the f-word and there is some low usage of mild obscenities.
Violence – 2.5
Violence is a backdrop for the story. There is a series of child murders but they are not discussed in any detail. The disturbing part is the fact that Avery continues to think back on the events as it bring him pleasure. There is one scene of violence that is mildly graphic but moderately disturbing.