Although I read it a couple of hundred books ago I can still vividly recall the things I liked so much about Belinda Bauer’s début novel BLACKLANDS. I’m in the minority (again) who grew decreasingly interested in the loosely connected set of books which followed that story (primarily due to what I think of as the Midsomer effect wherein my ability to suspend disbelief at evil things happening to the same small group of people/in the same small town/village grinds to nil fairly quickly) and so wasn’t terribly keen to read RUBBERNECKER until I realised it offered a complete break from the earlier works. Happily for me this book shows Bauer at her best once again.
As with BLACKLANDS it’s a deceptively simple novel that fits only tenuously within the boundaries of crime fiction but neither of those things should stop you from reading this one. To paraphrase a German (?) the delight is in the details of the stories of Patrick Fort, a young man with Asperger’s Syndrome, and Sam Galen; car accident victim and coma patient. As one might expect their two threads overlap eventually, predictably even in a way, but there is so much else going on underneath the surface that I genuinely didn’t think “oh I suppose that was a bit obvious” until long after I’d finished the book.
Patrick is a terrific character, especially because Bauer depicts his condition and its impact on Patrick himself and those around him realistically. Alongside his intelligence and often unintentional humour his single-mindedness, lack of social skills and inability to display affection in the traditionally accepted ways are all on show as are the impacts these traits have on his parents and fellow students when he starts attending Cardiff University’s anatomy class. You get a really good sense of how strange the world must be for Patrick with so many inexplicable things happening, such as people saying one thing but meaning something else which must be impossible to deal with when you can’t interpret the visual clues offered by body language and facial expressions, and see him slowly learn to identify some of the things the rest of us take for granted. But you also see how hard the world must be sometimes for the parent of a child like Patrick, especially one who is suffering the fallout from other life tragedies.
Much of Sam Galen’s story unfolds while he is a coma patient in a hospital ward where he cannot communicate with those around him but, through his thoughts and reflections, does talk to the reader. Again Bauer has done a good job of depicting this scenario (one which frightens me far more than axe wielding serial killers will ever do), juxtaposing Sam’s frustration and disconnection with the mundane realities of ward life One of the staff there is particularly memorable for her almost total lack of regard for the patients in her care, so absorbed is she in snaring a husband and becoming a woman of leisure.
Bauer has a knack for creating characters who don’t conform to the roles expected of them – mothers who don’t know how to love, nurses who aren’t imbued with a caring spirit, little boys who shrink from being touched, older ones who don’t know that gifts are to be given as well as received – all of whom are credible and most of whom are sympathetic even without being wholly likeable.
But, as I mentioned earlier, it is in the details of RUBBERNECKER that much of the delight is to be found. The plot is one of small movements rather than giant leaps and while some links between the disparate threads are easy enough to spot many of the real twists are hidden, almost until after you’ve read them. And Bauer makes you feel like you are right there in the world she has created – be it at the accident scene which opens the book, in the hospital ward or the dissecting room – with imagery such as “Over the course of the morning, they prised the brain out with spoons, and it flopped into Patrick’s hands like a water-filled balloon”. Try not to think about having a brain in your hand after reading that sentence.
I listened to this as an audio book, superbly narrated by English actor Andrew Wincott (who I have occasionally and somewhat guiltily listened to in The Archers over the years) which I highly recommend if the audio format is something you enjoy. Otherwise I’d head straight to the nearest print outlet and demand a copy.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Narrator Andrew Wincott
Publisher ISIS Publishing 
Length 8 hours 8 minutes
Format audio (mp3)
Book Series standalone
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