Written by Simon Beckett — With a slight hiatus in his writing, it was with some excitement that fans will greet this new standalone from Simon Beckett, marking a diversion from his well established and thoroughly enjoyable series featuring forensic anthropologist Dr David Hunter. Stone Bruises reveals itself as very different fare indeed…
Sean is a man on the run, and we’re initially in the dark as to why and from whom. We do know that he’s abandoned his battered, blood-stained car in the middle of an isolated part of rural France in the grips of a scorching summer. Desperate to avoid the police, he takes to the offbeat tracks of the French countryside, only to be caught in a trap, both physically and, as things are revealed, metaphorically. Nearly unconscious from pain and blood loss, Sean is taken in by two women – daughters of the owner of a rundown farm with its ramshackle buildings, blighted vineyard and the brooding lake. It soon becomes clear that this is only the start of Sean’s problems…
From its opening scene of a man adrift in the middle of nowhere and the veiled references to the violence that Sean has encountered in previous days, Beckett neatly builds a tense and claustrophobic feel from the outset that pervades the whole book. Instantly, your mind goes into overdrive as you try to unravel the clues drip fed throughout this scene, as Sean leaves behind his means of escape and communication, and begins to hitchhike through the countryside with his destination unknown. The portrayal of this lonely, rural landscape and the sweltering heat is superbly rendered, and both elements add even more to the tension. What secrets and dark deeds surround Sean? What awaits him further along the road?
The real turning point is when Sean, badly wounded from an animal trap, is brought into the home of the taciturn, yet tyrannical, local farmer Arnaud and his two daughters – Mathilde and Gretchen. Then things really get interesting. At the same time, Beckett begins to open the shutters on Sean’s previous life in London, steadily revealing the events sparked his flight to France, and the two narratives weave in and out of each other throughout. As Sean recovers from his injury and he begins to become more deeply interred into the life of the farm and its inhabitants, it’s safe to say that some duelling banjos will resonate in your mind. This sets up a horrifying and violent conclusion to the whole affair.
The characterisation is superb throughout, and what’s interesting is how Beckett seems to present the characters as through a prism – particularly Arnaud, Mathilde and Gretchen. Not only do we observe them through Sean, but also through the eyes of the local town dwellers, which unsettles Sean further in his perception of the dark undercurrents he senses within this claustrophobic family. From the gruff and violent father, Arnaud, to the seemingly sensible Mathilde and the marvellously deranged Gretchen, Beckett provides us with much fodder as we try to unravel the dynamic of this strange group, and their sinister secrets. To this end, Sean is almost just a conduit for the more interesting exploration of the family itself, and this for me, was certainly the most gripping narrative of the two. I found Sean’s former exploits in London a little underwhelming. Disappointingly, this aspect is a wee bit predictable in contrast to the events in France, where the plot, setting and characters keep your attention truly centred.
Despite the small imbalance between the two storylines, Stone Bruises is enjoyable and I would certainly recommend it. Probably not as a travel guide to rural France, though, as you wouldn’t want to set foot there ever again having read this book. However, it is an engaging and darkly unsettling read that has more than enough sinister surprises en route.
Stone Bruises is released on 30 January.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars