One of the joys of writing is, I think, taking two or more narrative strands and discovering how they meet in the middle. As a reader, I love it when different – seemingly unrelated stories – segue and combine.
Belinda Bauer’s Rubbernecker does this brilliantly. In fact, Rubbernecker does its best to confound its readers’ expectation in a number of ways. It takes one of those situations we’re familiar with from crime novels – the dissection of a body – and spins a singular and compelling story out of them.
Patrick Fort is a young man with Aspberger’s Syndrome. Fascinated by the death of his father, Patrick wants to discover what happens to a person when the die, so he resolves to find out. He takes an anatomy class in Cardiff, where he slowly dissects the body of Corpse 19, hoping to discover what has happened to it.
Patrick becomes suspicious that the body was the victim of a murder, but because of his condition, struggles to convince other people of the possibility. There’s also a narrative about Sam Galen, a trauma victim in a coma who, as he drifts into consciousness, sees a murder being committed on the neurological ward. These narratives, and other subplots, converge.
Rubbernecker is both very funny, and in its blow-by-blow description of the dissection of Corpse 19, very gruesome. It’s almost as if Bauer has said to her crime readers: you want dead bodies in your crime fiction? I’ll give you dead bodies!
Considering the complexity of the characters – one has Asperberger’s the other is in a coma, and find it impossible to communicate their fears and suspicions – Bauer admirably untangles all the different plot-strands. And some of the characters in Rubbernecker are terrific. The selfish and scheming ward nurse Tracy is a particular joy.
Usually, we like our characters to learn something by the end of a novel. They have moved, emotionally, from Point A to Point B. Because of his condition, Patrick is unable to do that, but the conclusion of Rubbernecker is both poignant and affecting.
The scenes are pretty short and economic, Bauer has been a screenwriter, and the novel deftly manages to strike a balance between being macabre and warm. And like our old friend Sheldon from Norwegian By Night, Patrick is another example of a idiosyncratic character, outside of the usual template of crime protagonists, who can successfully carry a crime novel.
What I liked: If you come up with a unique concept or location for your novel, think about all the different complications that could make your protagonist’s life even more unbearable. Rubbernecker is about a young man with Asperger’s who cuts up bodies as student, and Bauer runs with that central idea. There’s one particular set-piece that really makes the stomach churn. Take your protagonist, and your readers, to the furthest reaches of endurance – and let them dangle.
And what about you? What’s the most extreme situation you’ve ever placed one of your characters in? And how on earth did you get them out of it?