If anyone asks me to name my favorite book, my brain seizes like an engine that’s run out of oil. Too many choices, too many great authors. Even narrowing it down to one year is difficult. But push me hard enough, and I’ll give Blacklands by Belinda Bauer the nod for my favorite 2011 book – even over other worthy choices like Gary Schteyngart’s Super Sad true Love Story and Kevin Roose’s The Unlikely Disciple .
When I first reviewed Blacklands, I called its plot About a Boy meets The Silence of the Lambs. It’s pre-teen protagonist, Steven, is on a desperate search for the body of his uncle, Billy, who was apparently murdered when he was 12 years old (before Steven was even born). Billy’s disappearance destroyed his family; Steven feels like an ersatz replacement, and a disappointment to his grandmother and mother.
Steven has a notion he believes can heal his family – finding Billy’s body. It’s the ultimate closure, one that will allow his family to live again instead of just existing in a bleak village in rural England. With shovel in hand, he patrols Exmoor, a national park near his home. Shovelful by shovelful, he turns over gobs of peaty earth in search of Billy.
Why Exmoor? Because it’s where a serial killer named Arnold disposed of the bodies of the children he kidnapped and murdered. He’s suspected of killing Billy. But without his body, it’s impossible to prove. Great choice by the author – what could be creepier than the windswept stomping grounds of the rumored Beast of Exmoor? Plus it’s remote and quiet.
Steven turns a misguided if innocent pastime into something darker when he writes to Arnold for clues. Arnold turns his formidable intellect on Steven, setting up a contest of will and wits between the two. Bauer’s portrayal of Steven reminds me of Marcus from About a Boy . She’s effectively inside his head, tapping into his doubtful yet dogged nature. He’s not prone to navel-gazing introspection, which makes him feel more real than many other children voiced by adult authors.
What Bauer does so well besides constructing plots and characters is create a sense of place. Her descriptions are vivid, and she writes believable through Steven’s eyes. She conveys the stark landscape and chilling cold expertly. You also feel the travails he experiences dealing with school bullies, his family, his sort-of best friend. The supporting characters are also well-realized, with distinct personalities and characteristics.
It’s rare that I read a book that gives me nothing to complain about. This is one of them – the plot is engaging. The characters are evocative. The pace moves briskly, and there’s nary a bit of mawkish cheese or melodrama. Bauer gets the amount of description just right … enough to bring her setting to life, but nowhere near enough to make the reading a miserable slog.
Getting to the end becomes beside the point. And once you do arrive at the last page, you’ll quickly wonder what’s coming next from Bauer.