Last month my wife and I went to see the mentalist Derren Brown live, a belated birthday treat. As expected it was an amazing evening, made even more so when I was invited up on stage and became part of the show. It was an extraordinary experience, one that I tried to experience every second of but which still passed in a semi-hypnotic daze. I was literally stunned by what happened, and am still scratching my head weeks later trying to work out how it was done.
I was reminded of it when I started reading Belinda Bauer’s latest novel The Shut Eye. Bauer’s novels are a bit like a magic trick in that they start with a variety of disparate elements, and it’s only as the novel progresses that you see how they come together until – voila! – the mystery is solved. Bauer’s previous book Rubbernecker was one of my stand-out reads of last year – at once chilling, emotional, laugh-out-loud and utterly engaging. The Shut Eye is perhaps not as successful, but I still enjoyed it enormously. Partly because it touched on an area of interest to both me and Derren Brown, namely those psychics who assert they are able to communicate with the dead.
I’m not and never have been a believer in those abilities, and tend to see those claiming them as predators, exploiting the grief-stricken when they are at their most vulnerable. Bauer is smart enough in her book not to be so prescriptive, and the writing of The Shut Eye leaves events open to interpretation. Whilst some could have been caused by malicious intent, others are wholly inexplicable. Like my recent experience on the stage of the Alexandra Theatre, they leave the reader wondering how what you’ve just seen could possibly have happened.
The plot has two main strands. One half sees grieving mother Anna Buck mourning the loss of her son, Daniel. Daniel toddled out of their flat several months previously after the front door was left open, and has not been seen since. The only clue to his passing are five tiny footprints, left embedded in the wet cement outside the garage next door where Daniel’s father works. Anna’s loss is made manifest in the way she obsessively cleans these imprints, digging the grit and litter out of them and polishing them to a shine.
The other narrative centres on Detective John Marvel (and isn’t that some handle? Bauer’s character names are always excellent, but this one is in a class of its own – Marvel deserves his own standalone series), who is obsessed with another missing persons case: Edie Evans, a teenage girl who disappeared from home on her bicycle. Edie has been missing for over a year – in desperation at the lack of progress, Marvel called on the services of local psychic Richard Latham in trying to locate the girl, but without success. Events conspire to bring Latham to the attention of Anna Buck, and she approaches him for help to find Daniel. As the novel progresses the two strands begin to increasingly overlap, touching and affecting one another.
Bauer’s writing is as excellent as always, maintaining the keen eye she has for everyday detail and the emotional pull that families can exert. Anna Buck’s grief at losing Daniel is extremely well done; Bauer describes a woman pushed to the very edge of insanity, one who behaves in a way other characters struggle to understand – and yet the reader never once loses sympathy for her. Similarly, part of the narrative is told from the point of view of Edie Evans, held captive and frightened. Bauer’s tone perfectly matches that of a bright, scared 12-year old girl; and like a similar strand in Rubbernecker these scenes have a real emotional punch, and an almost overwhelming sadness about them.
What’s impressive about Bauer’s books is not just the quality of her writing but also the range that they encompass. As I said at the beginning, you’re never sure what you’re going to get, or where it will finally lead you. I can only guess at what Bauer will attempt next. But what’s not in doubt is that it will be as equally enthralling as both Rubbernecker and The Shut Eye proved to be.