Blacklands tells the story of a dysfunctional family torn apart by the death of a child sixteen years ago. Twelve-year-old Steven Lamb is determined to find the body of his mother’s eleven-year-old brother, Billy, who was murdered by serial killer Arnold Avery. While most of the bodies of Avery’s victims have since been recovered, Avery continues to refuse to reveal the whereabouts of Billy, preventing Stephen’s family from finding closure.
Stephen’s grandmother has spent most of the last sixteen years living in limbo, firmly ensconced at the front window of her house, watching for the boy who will never come home. Her daughter, Lettie, raising two sons of her own, has moved back in with her mother as she is struggling to make ends meet and is getting no support from her absentee husband. On the brink of puberty, Steven is aware his family life is disintegrating and he gets the idea if he can just find Billy’s body, he can help heal them all.
I felt a great deal of sympathy for Steven because he is well aware that his younger brother is his mother’s favourite and she makes no effort to hide her disappointment in Steven. While Steven’s grandmother’s behaviour is at least excusable due to the trauma of losing her son, I couldn’t summon any sympathy for Lettie who is always thinking about herself. When Steven starts receiving letters, Lettie immediately assumes he has a girlfriend who he will proceed to get pregnant and ruin Lettie’s life completely as a result.
When Steven’s attempts to find Billy on the bleak moors end in failure, he hits on the idea of contacting Avery in prison to get him to finally reveal where Billy is buried. However, Steven knows it won’t be easy because Avery has been reluctant to reveal any information in the past and Steven also knows his letters will be censored by prison officials. So Steven begins to write simple letters in a code he hopes Avery will understand and is thrilled when Avery begins to reply.
The psychological game between Steven and Avery is initially quite interesting, particularly since Avery has no idea he is corresponding with a child but part of me did feel that Steven was behaving a little too sophisticated for his age. The chapters dealing with Steven’s views on the state of the world around him are so introspective, I didn’t feel like I was reading the thoughts of a pre-teen at all. I started to lose interest in the plot once Avery had discovered Steven’s youth and began plotting his escape from prison, all of which happens far too easily. The chapters written from Avery’s viewpoint are disturbing which is natural since he is a child killer, but I never felt he was entirely convincing and once he escapes, he is more like a caricature than anything else.
The real strengths of this novel lie with Stephen’s family and how they react to the crime that has ripped them apart. So, I kinda wished Bauer had kept to her first plan about exploring the relationship between Steven and his grandmother rather than making Billy’s body the main focus as it would’ve been fascinating to get inside Nan’s head. Billy’s disappearance has affected Nan’s relationship with everyone in her family and I would’ve liked to have explored that a little more.
The overall story is very bleak in tone which is not surprising given the subject matter but it does end on a more positive note as Steven and his grandmother begin to find more common ground.