Review of Rubbernecker by Belinda Bauer: a novel with an autistic protagonist5 min read

Rubbernecker by Belinda Bauer is a crime novel with an autistic pro­tag­o­nist. There will be *min­imal spoilers* in this review, as it focuses mainly on the author’s depic­tion of autism.

I really enjoyed this book as an example of the crime genre. There were sev­eral threads run­ning through the book, most of which were nicely tied up by the end, which I found very sat­is­fying.

Initially, it may not seem like a typ­ical crime novel. We are intro­duced to Patrick, who is autistic. Several other cen­tral char­ac­ters are intro­duced early in the plot through their inner mono­logues. We are told Patrick has Asperger’s.

Unfortunately, throughout the book it is clear that Patrick’s mother resents him for his autism, and that she cannot accept him as he is and does not appre­ciate his tal­ents. As an autistic person, this was hard to read. It con­jured and stoked fears in the recesses of my mind about how my own family might feel about me and about how we are per­ceived by others. Those fears, ever-present at the back of my mind, were only brought to the fore­ground and rein­forced by this book.

I feel that this could have been an oppor­tu­nity for such stereo­typ­ical atti­tudes to be por­trayed in a crit­ical light– but Bauer falls short of crit­i­cism. These atti­tudes are repro­duced in other char­ac­ters along­side an autistic pro­tag­o­nist who is clearly tal­ented and whom we root for… and that’s it. The reader is left to con­demn or not as he or she chooses.

I sus­pect that the inten­tion is for us to feel sym­pathy with both Patrick and his mother fairly equally. Instead, I see her as someone who blamed her autistic son for her own prob­lems and for her inability to accept him as he is. It’s not sur­prising that I sym­pa­thise more with Patrick’s char­acter.

Besides Patrick’s mother, Meg is the other cen­tral char­acter whose thoughts and feel­ings about Patrick are revealed to us in first person. If the author wanted to intro­duce a more pos­i­tive view­point, Meg’s voice would have been the ideal oppor­tu­nity. While it’s true that Meg appre­ci­ates Patrick’s tal­ents, even she is neg­a­tive when it comes to his autism.

She cleared her throat. “You’re dif­ferent, you know.”

“Only dif­ferent from you,” he said. “Not dif­ferent from me.”

Ultimately, Meg is dis­ap­pointed by him; appar­ently, because he is autistic, he would never be enough for her… as if autistic people are less-than in some way.

Meg wasn’t sure how she felt. She would miss him, but she wasn’t quite sure how much there was to miss. “Will you come back to visit us?”

“I don’t think so.” Meg tried not to feel hurt. There was only so much you could expect from someone like Patrick. Still, he had come to say goodbye, which was sur­pris­ingly socially inter­ac­tive of him.
[ Emphasis mine. ]

The depic­tion of autism is some­what clumsy and stereo­typ­ical, though not nec­es­sarily always incor­rect. The text­book male pre­sen­ta­tion is shown here, which at least isn’t incor­rect– though it does only rep­re­sent one small and one-dimensional part of the autistic com­mu­nity. It’s a neu­rotyp­ical inter­pre­ta­tion of autism, and that’s apparent.

Also, present in this story is the idea that autistic people don’t have an inner life– an idea that is at best offen­sive and at worst dehu­man­ising.

“No war, no sci-fi.” Patrick nodded som­brely, and Meg real­ized she could give him spe­cific instruc­tions and he would carry them out with the pre­ci­sion of a com­puter. For a cruel second she almost demanded Pride and Prejudice from him, but pushed it aside with an inner giggle.

Describing autistic people as com­puters or robots rep­re­sents the view that autistic people are without internal expe­ri­ence of the world– which is far from true.

In better news, Bauer doc­u­ments well some of the pos­i­tives of autism; for example, Patrick’s spe­cial inter­ests become strengths for him. I also found Patrick a lik­able char­acter whom I wanted to suc­ceed. The overly sim­plistic view of his expe­ri­ence of life is dis­ap­pointing though. After all, we are not robots and most of us have an especially-rich inner life and expe­ri­ence of the world, albeit dif­ferent from the neu­rotyp­ical expe­ri­ence.

There was a moment with Meg that I liked, as an attempt to describe this inner life:

“What’s it like to be you?” she said. Patrick was sur­prised. Nobody had ever asked him what it was like to be him, not even his mother. [… ] Still Meg waited, and sud­denly Patrick was filled with a tight, burning frus­tra­tion at his inability to explain what it was like.

“It’s very,” he said force­fully. “Very very.”

It feels impor­tant to note that Patrick is not the only simplistically-drawn char­acter. I felt Tracy, the nurse, was a bit of a misog­y­nistic trope to pull out, and I was sur­prised and dis­ap­pointed by this. I’ve read sev­eral other books by Belinda Bauer and know her to be capable of careful and thoughtful char­acter cre­ation.

Admittedly, I found the vil­lain to be a little empty here, too. I didn’t have a good under­standing of what moti­vated the antag­o­nist.

Once I’d made it through the res­o­lu­tion, I found the future for Patrick more than a little dis­ap­pointing. In my head, I like to imagine a bright future for him wherein he goes into foren­sics and is a bril­liant solver of crimes (and that we get a whole series of Patrick Fort books in which we see his char­acter devel­oped fur­ther)! Alas, the way Rubbernecker fin­ished sug­gests that we’ve heard the last from Patrick.

A missed oppor­tu­nity, in my view.

In con­clu­sion, do read this book. The plot is fan­tas­ti­cally crafted and orig­inal, it offers some­thing new and dif­ferent to the crime genre, and I enjoyed the pro­tag­o­nist. I also find it inter­esting reading a book with an autistic char­acter, even if I dis­agree with how that person is char­ac­terised.

If nothing else, your read­er­ship proves that there is a market and demand for autistic char­ac­ters to be fea­tured in books.

Yes to more novels with autistic heroes, no to stereo­typ­ical depic­tions and tragically-disappointed mothers of autistic chil­dren.

The Aspergian Official Rating: 3 of 5 head­phones

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