BY BELINDA BAUER
by Zoe Strimpel
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 moor 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.”
So begins screenwriter Belinda Bauer’s deeply atmospheric, remarkably adept first novel about a child murder, a child murderer – and the child that calls the latter to account for the former. The twelve- year-old Steven (the boy mentioned above) is the book’s narrator and we meet him digging on Exmoor looking for the corpse of his uncle Billy, murdered at the age of 11. For Steven lives in a household of despair, made so after Billy’s death. His grandmother stares out the window all day waiting for her boy to return and snapping at her daughter, Steven’s worn-down mother Lettie.
Realising that his project of digging up all Exmoor is likely to be fruitless, Steven decides to write to Arnold Avery, the imprisoned child serial killer thought to be behind Billy’s death. Thus begins a game of cat and mouse between Steven and murderer Avery, rendered both heart-rending and sinister due to the innocence and courage of one correspondent and the manipulating, total blackness of the other.
Thrilllers about child murder can succumb too easily to pathos and hyperbole – easy drama shoddily laid out. And earnest authors attempting to capture the narrative of a pre-teen often create something unbelievable and cliche. Not so Bauer, whose Steven has the true-sounding voice of a 12-year old, who acts simply out of the desire to improve the complex awfulness and misery of his family’s life.
A novel, a thriller, a mystery, a psychological study: Blacklands is all four and one of the most impressive debuts of the last year.
BY NIGEL FARNDALE
by Zoe Strimpel
PERHAPS journalist and Whitbread-nominated author Nigel Farndale has found something missing in his professional firmament of high profile interviews. His subjects have included some of the wisest people on earth – the Dalai Lama and Henry Kissinger among them – but The Blasphemer betrays an author intensively questioning the nature of human existence, the role of the spirit – plus angels and demons – in a rational man’s mind.
The result is rather an interesting book, that tries to do a huge amount and that makes no bones about grappling with life’s big questions. It’s not the most credible of novels but if you can suspend belief, there are rewards.
Daniel Kennedy is so unlucky that a character like him can only be made up. His life spins out of control when the plane he and his wife are on crashes near the Galapagos islands. In a desperate bid to survive, he reaches over his gasping wife for air, before heading back to save her. They both float for hours, near death, before finding help. While in the water, Kennedy, a zoologist that fancies himself a bit of a latter-day Darwin, has a vision of a young man beckoning to him. He is then rescued in a miraculous way by a turtle. For a rationalist, this vision and its seeming connection to the grace of God, is deeply unsettling. Then there’s the issue of his hesitation over saving his wife. But such issues become small fry on the Kennedys’ return to London – Daniel is caught up in a terrorist attack, diagnosed with a brain tumour, and their daughter is abducted.
In case that’s not enough plot fodder, there’s a parallel WW1 narrative that tells of Daniel’s great grandfather who is led from the deadly battle of Passchendaele by a vision, and into the arms of a French widow. (Could visions be hereditary?) There’s too much here, and it’s all asking too many half-conceived questions about the existence and the soul, with little ensuing clarity. But you have to take your hat off to Farndale – this could have been a proper epic in an only slightly parallel universe.
A ROOM SWEPT WHITE
BY SOPHIE HANNAH
by Kathleen Brooks
TALENTED crime writer and award-winning poet Sophie Hannah’s latest thriller tells the story of Fliss Benson, a TV producer who is assigned to work on a documentary about cot death. The documentary traces the stories of Helen Yardley and Rachel Hind, who have been wrongly convicted of child murder and then released. Benson’s third subject is Dr. Judith Duffy, the expert witness at both of the women’s trials, who contributed to their conviction and life sentence.
The documentary’s subject matter is particularly painful for Benson and she is reluctant to work on the project – in fact it’s the last subject she wants to work on. Why this is the case is an important element of the story and is artfully withheld until a substantial way through it.
We meet Benson at her desk, studying a mysterious card with a sequence of numbers that she doesn’t understand. When one of the women she is filming for the documentary is found dead – a suspected murder – the card comes into focus, leaving Benson in the middle of a saga with a crucial conundrum she needs to work out. If she was reluctant to get involved with this documentary before, she’s got no choice but to see it through now.
A Room Swept White is instantly attractive – Hannah’s crisp, expressive prose marches you briskly between sharp details and confident characterisations, building an ever more complex, rewarding plot as it goes. Tension drips from every page, but not at the expense of intellectual provocation.
Hannah’s The Other Half Lives and The Point of Rescue have gone down a treat with readers and have sold more than half a million copies combined. A Room Swept White has every bit as much sordid magic as they do and deserves to do as well.