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Anyone who thinks that the crime novel is a boring, repetitive genre would do well to read Belinda Bauer’s Rubbernecker. Set in the coma ward of a Cardiff hospital, Rubbernecker may be a murder mystery, but it’s not really a whodunit. We are given the how a few chapters into the book, and options for the who are vanishingly small. Instead of focusing on the mechanics of detection, Rubbernecker is more interested in uncovering the reasons why someone might commit murder, and the way an action like murder can spread to affect a surprisingly diverse group of people. Above all, Rubbernecker is a clever, beautifully written and darkly banal study of the owners of two very individual minds: coma patient Sam Galen and autistic student Patrick Fort.
Both Sam and Patrick are trapped by their own misfiring brains. After a horrific (and shockingly well described) car accident in the novel’s first chapter, Sam’s brain allows him to understand but not respond. He’s stuck in the coma ward, where the highlights of his days include being ignored by lazy nurses and being visited by a wife he doesn’t even remember. And then, one night, he looks over at the bed next to him and sees something terrible…
While Sam is acutely aware of what he can’t do, Patrick is very comfortable in his own skin; his trouble is understanding why the rest of the human race doesn’t respond to the world in the same way he does. Patrick is autistic, and although his condition allows him to minutely catalogue the world, he isn’t able to process what those observations mean. Patrick’s father was killed in a hit-and-run accident when he was a child, and this experience has left him feeling certain that he has missed a crucial piece of information that everyone else has access to. He is studying anatomy at university as part of his quest to understand the concept of death, but the dissection subject he is given brings him the exact opposite of enlightenment — and worse, Patrick begins to suspect that the man’s official cause of death is just plain wrong.
Sam and Patrick both have suspicions that they’re incapable of sharing information that they are unable to fully understand and communicate to the people around them. Without knowing it, they’re two halves of the same puzzle, and the genius of Bauer’s book is the way she manages to synthesise Sam and Patrick’s stories, teasing out real suspense while she builds up two touching portraits of two men struggling to make sense of their lives.
Patrick, especially, is a completely delightful main character, and Bauer’s presentation of extreme autism feels real. What’s more difficult to believe in, oddly, is the inability of almost every other character to understand how to cope with his behaviour. Even his university professors have apparently not been briefed by the pastoral department on Patrick’s inability to use sarcasm or humour, and months after they first meet him, they are still assuming that he’s being sarky rather than bluntly honest. Of course, the plot turns on Patrick’s fundamental isolation, the fact that no one believes him even when he’s telling the truth. He knows that a murder has taken place, but what he doesn’t know is how to make other people listen to him. It’s difficult not to feel the same frustration as Patrick does — like Sam, and like Patrick himself, the reader is trapped, unable to make the rest of the novel’s characters wake up and really see what’s under their noses. It’s a really clever concept, and in Bauer’s capable hands it works wonderfully.
Rubbernecker has a very unpleasant side to it, but its darkness doesn’t come from exceptional evil. It’s about everyday nastiness — the little cruelties of the nurses on the coma ward, the small ways in which family members misunderstand and disappoint each other, the thousands of tiny opportunities to be kind that we miss every day. At times it’s deeply chilling — a novel that will haunt you with its very possibility, but it is also an engrossing and very readable murder mystery. Crime fiction fans will find Rubbernecker intensely enjoyable, a novel that’s both well-plotted and extremely well-written. Personally, I wish I’d discovered Bauer sooner. I thought this was a great book, and I can’t wait to read all of her other novels.