Review: Rubbernecker, By Belinda Bauer

The curious case of the talking dead

With Rubbernecker, her fourth novel, Belinda Bauer is to be applauded for attempting to take the psychological thriller into new territory. But while there is much to appreciate in this odd and occasionally engaging novel, it felt, to this reviewer at least, like more of a creative writing exercise than a properly coherent story.

The prose is smoothly efficient and propels the narrative along in the final quarter of the book, but elsewhere the pace seriously sags. The focus (and presumably the rubbernecker of the title, though this is never made explicit) is Patrick Fort, a young man with Asperger's syndrome who is beginning his anatomy studies at university in Cardiff.

There are obvious parallels with Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of The Dog in the Night Time, as much of the story is told in Patrick's emotionally disconnected voice. This has become a pretty familiar narrative trick since Haddon's success, and it can be a hard one to perform, but Bauer imbues her lead character with just about enough empathy to make the reader care.

Unlike his fellow students, Patrick does not intend to become a doctor. He's not interested in what makes people live; he's interested, from a technical point of view, in what makes them die. (This is partly because of his own father having been struck by a car and killed in front of him when he was little.) Along with his mental condition, this morbid interest makes him an unorthodox but brilliant student.

Along with his classmates, Patrick has a cadaver to dissect over the course of a term. While everyone else goofs off around the dead bodies, or feels bad for them, Patrick gets on with the business at hand, until he uncovers a suspected cause of death that doesn't tally with the official record.

Interspersed with this narrative are several others, most prominently the story of a middle-aged man who had been in a coma after a car accident, and is trying to recover the use of his body. The medical detail about the complex conditions of coma sufferers is fascinating and adds a layer of veracity to the story, but the man's glacially slow recuperation doesn't exactly make for riveting reading.

But that narrative fares better than the story of vacuous nurse Tracy, who works on the neurological ward but spends all her time attempting to snare the wealthy husband of another coma victim. This plot strand does eventually tie into the rest of the story, but is neither convincing nor satisfying when it does.

Indeed, the integration of the various plot strands and back stories is clunky throughout. Things pick up towards the end, but with Patrick's emotional detachment from the supposed crime he is investigating, Bauer has really made a rod for her own back. Rubbernecker is intriguing, at times impressive, but never compelling.