I share a love of hiking, bad knees and a fear of heights with the author, Belinda Pollard, which boded well for whether I’d appreciate her debut novel, Poison Bay. And there were indeed many aspects of the book to appreciate: exemplary research, an evocative location, consistently spot-on narrative pacing, a deepening mystery and an intriguing ensemble cast.
For the most part, the author handles all these spinning plates deftly.
So why did I feel a slight let-down after all was said and done? It took a while for me to realise, but I think it was the plot-versus-character dichotomy. For me, the characters often seemed to serve the plot rather than vice versa, which always leaves me slightly unsatisfied. Too often, they tended to act in slightly implausible ways. Perhaps also I wanted something a little darker, something along the lines of Scott Brown’s The Ruins, albeit without the weird supernatural angle. There’s something darkly compelling about a group of friends trapped in a hostile landscape trying to survive either as a team or as a group of increasingly fractious individuals. To be fair, once the original antagonist bows out (somewhat spectacularly), the growing awareness on the part of the remaining characters that someone else is stalking them, and perhaps more than one, is an excellent new layer. It’s just that I rarely sensed the full import of their situation, on a deeper emotional level.
And that’s it. If character often took a backseat to plot, these plot machinations were nonetheless enough to bring me back, again and again. Some of the characters, too, although many tended to blur together and weren’t quite individualised enough through word or deed.
Some of the descriptions of the majestic and treacherous New Zealand landscape were generally well-worked, in sync with the pace of the narrative, but again, I craved a few more descriptive passages (while realising not everyone has such a high tolerance for lyrical, descriptive prose). The novel as a whole was adequately and even competently written, which can be a positive in itself, since it avoids drawing attention to the writing in favour of the story, but I have to admit I wanted her to do more with such a glorious and haunting backdrop.
Pollard handled the back and forth between the endangered hikers and the characters in the local town really well. The subplot and burgeoning connection between the terrified yet resourceful mum and the kindly local cop was well crafted. No scene felt like it overstayed its welcome, and both perspectives (searchers and searched-fors) were essential to the novel’s balance.
Speaking of perspective, perhaps the most confusing aspect for me was that the synopses and even a few reviews seem to indicate that Callie Brown is the protagonist, and the novel certainly continued in that vein from the beginning, but as we moved further into the shifting POV, I had the sense that Jack had become the de facto protagonist by the end. Pollard shows an understanding of perspective in general, although there were a few moments of head-hopping toward the end that threw me out completely (partly because they were so unexpected in a novel that appeared to otherwise understand that aspect of storytelling).
Despite these few misgivings, and given this is a debut novel that largely balances its technical aspects and challenges with considerable aplomb, I’d recommend this well-told mystery-survival thriller (with said minor caveats) and will look out for Belinda Pollard’s subsequent work as she continues to learn her craft.