2018 Man Booker Review: Snap

7th September 2018

Snap, Belinda Bauer,

Bantam Press, London, 2018

Reviewed by Jill Glenn

With an accolade from Val McDermid (one of this year’s Man Booker judging panel) on the front cover – ‘The best crime novel I’ve read in a very long time’ – you might be deluded into thinking you were going to get something really special in Belinda Bauer’s ‘Snap’. Only a cynic would want to point out that McDermid and Bauer share a literary agent. Whatever the motivation behind the quotation, if this really is the best of contemporary crime writing today, then I’m not surprised that genre fiction is rarely in contention for the Man Booker prize. Long may accusations of literary elitism abound.

‘Snap’ begins well enough; in fact, it begins pretty brilliantly. The first few pages are mesmerising. It’s August 1998, and three children are waiting in a broken-down car on a motorway hard shoulder while their mother goes to phone for help. ‘It was so hot in the car that the seats smelled as though they were melting. Jack was in shorts, and every time he moved his legs they sounded like Sellotape’. Their mother doesn't come back; eventually they set off to meet her. ‘The breathless air twitched in the wake of each car, then flopped down dead in the dust again.’ When they reach the emergency phone the receiver is dangling from the box, ‘just touching the tops of the yellow grass, motionless on its twisted wire.’ The intensity promises much…
…but by chapter two the writing has already started to slump into something more pedestrian, something that patronises both the reader and the characters. Bauer writes movingly and believably when she is conveying the intimacy of children’s thoughts and experiences, but her more objective narratorial voice is clunky – as are her plot twists. It’s the sort of book that ought to come with its own spoiler alerts, for the big reveals are blindingly obvious long before the characters have their lightbulb moment. It’s a shame, because there is plenty to like; it’s just that you have to work at noticing it. There’s plenty of humour, for example, in the police scenes, and she also has great sense of place; this is very visual writing.

‘Jack’s in charge,’ said their mother as she left. Three years later, Jack’s still in charge, providing for his little sisters by a life of crime, guided by Fagin-esque Louis, who teaches him ‘the ins and outs of the business of breaking and entering.’ You couldn’t fail to like Jack, or precocious little Merry, who both display a degree of resilience as they jaunt through their unlikely lives, but it’s middle sister Joy who is the most damaged, the most interesting, and the least evident.

It’s a shame that Bauer is a ‘crime writer’; if that weren’t her aim, she could have written a wonderful, attentively observed contemporary tale of abandoned children and failing communities, that would honour the Man Booker judges’ assessment of it as ‘an acute, stylish, intelligent novel about how we survive trauma’. There are passages that deserve that description, certainly, but with its relentless pursuit of plot, and a tendency to tell not show, it left this reader exhausted by its pace and very glad it was over.

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