Belinda Bauer
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Buy *Rubbernecker* by Belinda Baueronline

Belinda Bauer
Atlantic Monthly Press
320 pages
August 2015
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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Although Bauer’s grisly thriller is sometimes predictable, I was intrigued from the beginning with the images of Sam Galen as he drives too fast down the A470, his car jackknifing in the air, only to find that his last moments are witnessed by eighteen-year-old Patrick Fort, who wonders what things are like inside of that car, all twisted and bloody like the torture of “twisted angels.” The one hope is that Sam is not actually dead, but he is destined to exist in a coma, hovering between life and death in the Cardiff neurological unit.

When Patrick--who suffers from Asperger’s syndrome--gets a studentship to study anatomy at Cardiff, he clearly sees the psychological significance of cutting into these cadavers, gradually coming to see himself as part of something bigger and more mysterious, the bodies like artworks in this exhibition, waiting patiently to be deconstructed and analyzed. Patrick is tortured by the events surrounding his father’s sudden death, which over the months have undergone a strange progression tinged with unease.

Patrick’s mother, Sarah, seems to resent him at every turn. He might be a brilliant, but he’s also an unconventional student (officious Dr. Spicer thinks he’s the most capable in the group). For years, Sarah has been hostile and unavailable, too overwhelmed with grief over her husband’s tragic accident and her son’s “disability” to consider any form of compassion. Desperate to stay dry after years of alcoholism and already struggling to maintain the semblance of a normal life, the loss of her husband moves her dangerously close to a mental state from which she might never recover. Sarah tries to understand why Patrick has such a fascination with the dead, although she’s fully prepared to support him in his studies in Cardiff. Patrick, meanwhile, feels an unaccustomed buzz of pure optimism. This is the place where his quest might reach its conclusion--in this very room: “this cathedral to science--this white gallery of death.”

Refracting her story through Patrick’s quasi-scientific, determinedly dispassionate subjectivity, Bauer includes many graphic scenes, all from the point-of-view of her obsessive hero. In the neurological coma room, the novel’s most despicable character, nurse Tracy Evans, monitors the few patients in deep comas. Mostly selfish and lazy, Tracy is also acerbic and resentful, caring little for her patents who seem asleep and motionless but are soon grunting and moaning and blinking. In a clever twist, Tracy sets her sights on the husband of one of the coma victims while also attending to Sam Galen, who seems to be watching over her. This only increases Tracy’s prickling fear that all of the dead-eyed patients are spying on her, “as if biding their time.”

The novel takes a distinctly grotesque turn as Patrick (after a particularly grisly dissection) becomes convinced there is dirty work afoot, perhaps even murder. The clues pile up as the familiar bits of an unsolved puzzle start to “slow circuit” in Patrick’s head: the scarred finger, the fragment of blue latex, and the padlocked door. Patrick becomes so confused that he can’t assume anything. Suddenly Bauer’s unconventional narrator is on the run, trying to solve a homicide, convinced that the dead are really speaking to him, and that poor Sam Galen is telling Patrick all the truth he needs to know. Stumbling into the life of Lexi, Galen’s daughter, Patrick makes some discoveries that suggest a starting place for unraveling the machinations of Cardiff’s anatomy unit as well as Sam’s recent actions, a man who was rich and mean and is now perhaps “dead.”

As Lexi and kindly Meg are driven to understand Patrick’s desperation, his desire to pursue leads brings him face to face with an intensifying danger. Running counterpoint to his investigation is Sarah, who decides to take measures into her own hands. Unable to connect with her son, she is soon becoming a far cry from the cruel, abusive mother who just cannot understand or comprehend her son’s Asperger’s. Eventually uncovering the horrific events that contributed to his father’s accident and also the macabre procedures that are taking place in the anatomy unit, Patrick nearly loses everything, including his life.

Although I didn’t think the novel was as clever or as unique as Blacklands, Bauer’s fast-paced narrative, well-developed characters, and her descriptions of Cardiff and its surrounds kept me turning the pages. In the end, Bauer puts it all out there. Patrick’s investigations reveal a new brand of evil as Sam Galen’s indefensible life spurs the boy on to entrap the most heinous of men while also making amends with his poor, embattled mother.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2015

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