Review: Black Rabbit Summer, Kevin Brooks
Having recently read Kevin Brooks’ The Bunker Diary, I was directed towards more of his work, and particularly Black Rabbit Summer. Altogether more conventional that The Bunker Diary, this novel is a murder-mystery that becomes a character-drama, not something I would normally read. Nevertheless, I was intrigued by Brooks’ style and manner of writing, so carried on regardless.
In it’s opening, Black Rabbit Summer is deceptively simple. The premise of 5 teenagers, about to go their separate ways, is not anything particularly groundbreaking, or indeed anything that intriguing. One night at a funfair, and everything has gone wrong- two missing teens and one dead rabbit. On the while, fairly unremarkable given the genre. And yet, this book draws you in. Regardless of my expectations before approaching this novel (which were not high after being sickened by The Bunker Diary), I cannot deny that Brooks is an exceptionally talented writer. Rather than the plot, which is at first a little unremarkable, it is the strength of character that make this novel work.
There is no real sympathetic character in this novel, and every member of the cast is layered and flawed, some displaying tolerable foibles, others more extreme shortcomings. There are drug users, liars, manipulators, thieves and violent aggressors. As a narrator, Pete is incredibly unstable and unreliable, his clearly-illustrated thought processes constantly in flux. Repeated questionings by the police allow this constantly altering perspective to become apparent, emphasising the change that characterises this novel.
As in The Bunker Diary, Brooks seems unwilling to condemn any of the crimes or immoralities in his characters. There is no questioning that Pete is increasingly aware of the layers to his fellows (this in fact becomes the focus of the plot, overshadowing the crime-drama aspect) but he rarely admonishes them, instead leaving that to the parents and police. Pete’s own parents would be seen as particularly overbearing and judgemental, if it were not for the fact that they have been rendered just as human and fallible as the teenage cast. Pete is not afraid to question them, almost undermining their authority, and proving them to be just as accessible as characters as his peers. Similarly, the reader is unable to really come to hate any character- they are simply too ‘real’ to easily categorise. There is no good or bad, right or wrong, only shades of humanness.
The plot itself is perhaps the most mediocre aspect of the book, and certainly takes a back seat to the ever-evolving presentation of characters. Through Pete, the reader is never supplied with all the facts, but at the same time, enough hints are dropped for one to begin to put two and two together, and sometimes arrive at the right conclusion. There is never enough to make it boring and obvious, but also enough to reward the reader for actively thinking. However, it is a little inconsequential in the end; while some twists are entirely unforeseen and some brutally shocking, one almost gets the feeling they don’t matter. As much as it might pretend to be, this is not a crime drama, and the only place where the plot really seems important is when it’s directly changing Pete’s views of his fellow characters. Without giving anything away, every member of the ensemble are viewed entirely differently at the start and end of the novel, as old wounds are opened, new ones develop and entirely unforeseen events change Pete’s worldview in a major way.
One character I’ve omitted to mention until this point is Raymond, the apparent ‘fifth wheel’ of the initial group. The one who talks to his rabbit. The one who thinks the rabbit talks back. If anything, he is the most sympathetic character, and certainly the most innocent and scrupulous. Despite this, he is the first one to go, vanishing without a trace and ignored for a large part of the novel by a police force commenting on another, higher-profile disappearance. The reader really doesn’t get to know Raymond that well while he is present, and it is only in the response from the other members of the cast that his nature becomes clear. To some, he’s a threat, to some, an outcast, and only to Pete is he a friend. As much as he dominates Pete’s thoughts throughout the novel, though, he very quickly fades out of focus, particularly in the last third to quarter of the novel. A metaphor for his outcast nature? Perhaps, or possibly just another aspect of reality- not everyone can be the Most Important Thing.
Where I feel this novel perhaps flounders is in its presentation of the supernatural and the almost-real. Brooks’ grasp on creating a very vivid and real world is almost undermined by an element of the unreal that is never truly explained. Some elements are simply drug-induced hallucinations, but other aspects remain unanswered. Does Raymond really hear his rabbit speak? Does Pete then hear this same voice? If so, how? Although these points are obviously deliberately unresolved, I can’t help but feel they didn’t add to that much to either plot or character, and are simply a distraction to more important matters.
Overall, then, this novel gets a thumbs up, simply on the basis that it paints a vivid, vibrant picture of modern life, and while some aspects are more extreme than we’ve encountered, there’s something here that everyone can identify with. The characters are living and breathing on the page, the setting is everywhere, and while there is no real message or judgement, this is a novel where the process of change in environment, in interactions and in mindsets is genuinely interesting. Not a crime drama, but a drama based around crimes, this is a solid book that, while not completely inspiring, is very well-written and constructed.