The Official Book Blurb
A dark tale of love and lies, obsession and betrayal, The Black Path will appeal to fans of ‘domestic noir’ and anyone who’s ever wondered about the secrets people keep.
How well do you really know those closest to you? Helen has been holding out for a hero all her life. Her father was a hero – but he was murdered when she was ten. Her husband is a hero – but he’s thousands of miles away, fighting a war people say will never be won. Sometimes Helen wonders if Owen isn’t the only one living in a war zone. She feels the violence all around her. She reads about it in the papers. It feeds her dreams and fills her days with a sense of dread. Try as she might, she can’t escape the feeling that something terrible is about to happen. Then one night on the troubled streets of her home town, Helen is rescued from a fight by a woman who will change her life forever.
Sian is everything Helen isn’t – confident, glamorous, fearless. But there’s something else about her – a connection that cements their friendship and makes Helen question everything she’s ever known. And when her husband returns home, altered in a way she can’t understand, she is forced to draw on an inner strength she never knew she had. As bitter truths are uncovered, Helen must finally face her fears and the one place which has haunted her since childhood – the Black Path.
The Black Path first came to my attention when I attended the New Blood panel at the Killer Women Festival last October. I was intrigued by the idea of it, partly in truth because it was set in Bridgend, an area I have visited many times over the years, originally as Regional Manager when we opened a distribution centre down there, and now, more recently as National Manager. I’m actually down there tomorrow. Small fact, nothing to do with the book but I do love reading stories set in places I know. And to be honest the author had an intriguing story of his own, speaking candidly about the trolling he had suffered as a result of his sexuality. I hate bullying in any form and it made me all the more determined to read the book.
To me The Black Path was an intriguing and often moving read. Telling the story of Helen McGrath, an Army wife, struggling to find a life of her own to occupy her time while her husband Owen is on a tour of duty in Afghanistan. Helen has an amazingly sad back story, the novel opening with a news story detailing the murder of her father on a dark and dangerous footpath in her home town of Bridgend, know locally as ‘the black path’. Renowned as bring the hangout of drug users, gangs and all manner of bad people, Helen has always been scared of the path, trusting her parents warnings not to go there. Her father’s murder only cements this angst.
Helen is an interesting character. Somewhat of a loner and incredibly naive, she spends her Sunday’s visiting her mother, a woman with whom she has a strained relationship. She is kind of meek, lacking the fortitude to stand up for herself and altogether too trusting. When she is befriended by Sîan, a woman who saves her from an unprovoked attack on a rare night out in town, you know that things are not going to end well. If Helen is meek, Sîan is the polar opposite. Strong, domineering and altogether too familiar, she pushes her way into Helen’s life in a way that would have most people telling her to do one. In that sense, Helen frustrated me. Why would anyone let someone else take over like that? Trust a complete stranger and never once question her motives. And yet when Owen is injured, Sîan is like a rock. But is she too good to be true?
The novel explores an interesting topic – that of the incredible and indelible bond which grows between men and women serving together in the Army. Helen’s husband, Owen, is depicted as a man who is torn between his sense of duty and the horror of having killed a young boy on his previous tour. Like so many soldiers, this is something he cannot share with his wife, putting a small wall up in what had previously been an open marriage. I have no experience of this myself, but I know people who have been in the army, have spoken with them about the sense of family that grows there and never leaves, no matter how long ago you may have left. The shared sense of loss when a fellow soldier is killed. The quiet understanding of the mental cost of taking another life. It is hard to express but I think captured so beautifully and sympathetically in this book. No, the book doesn’t go into graphic detail. It doesn’t need to. Sometimes the simplest words, thoughts and feelings are enough to demonstrate the doubts, the anger, the self loathing than can exist, even when fulfilling a sense of duty.
There is another angle to the story set in Afghanistan too. It is one that perhaps isn’t overly common, one that perhaps isn’t talked about, but which may in truth happen more than people willingly admit. The issue of homosexuals in the Army is one which is often talked about still, depressing as that idea is. Whilst it is no longer banned, it is still not wholly accepted in all quarters. But this book goes a step beyond just having a token gay soldier, or many banter based references to soldiers being ‘gay’ because of some vague reason or another. This explores the relationship between Owen and Collins, one of the Privates stationed at Camp Bastion with him. Collins is gay, Owen is not, and yet the chemistry between them, whether caused by the strained and unusual conditions of war, or some other aspect of Owen’s character which he has never explored, is obvious from the start. The exploration of this relationship is not sordid, not gratuitous and not overtly sexual and yet the impact of the young Private upon Owen is profound and also moving. It is a brave subject to tackle as there is a real chance it could cause offence among the narrow minded, but again it is done with sensitivity and adds a beautifully poignant edge to the novel.
Now you are probably wondering where all this fits in with a Crime Festival, because up to now it sounds like more of a domestic drama, of two people being forced apart by war. Maybe you are thinking that this is just a story about how they ‘find each other again’. I suppose, to some extent it is. But it is also more than that. Running throughout this love triangle of sorts there is a building tension. A sense that something is about to happen, something which Sîan is at the centre of. And there is a steady devolution of the relationship firstly between Sîan and Helen and then between Helen and Owen which marks the steady journey towards a progressively tense ending.
The book is divided into two parts. Part one covers the period during which Helen meets Sîan and Owen is serving in Afghanistan. Part two takes place after Owen returns, injured by an IED whilst out on patrol. The events of that day change things forever in Owen and Helen’s lives, but also act as a catalyst for what is to come. Littered throughout the book, which is told from both Helen and Owen’s points of view, with an occasional interlude from Helen’s mother and her work colleague, are newspaper clippings and investigative reports into the events surrounding Helen’s father’s death. Far from being over, it is the simple act of violence at the start of the book which is to inform most of the action in the second half. We come to learn more about what really happened on that day and Helen comes to an uncomfortable realisation about all of the people in her life that she had once wholly trusted.
This is not a fast paced novel. You aren’t going to get any high voltage action scenes from the war and aside from a mortar attack on Camp Bastion, the only real moment of absolute peril comes towards the end. But then you don’t always need that. Having read a number of books which were hot on serious tension, unexpected twists or using outright shocks to thrill or engage the reader, this was a very welcome change of pace. I don’t always need to be surprised or dumbfounded. Sometimes I just want to read a great story. The Black Path gave me that. Beautifully written, capturing the essence of the seedier side of small town life and with a slow building tension and sense of foreboding, I had a kind of smug feeling, knowing where this was going to lead, and yet I was still a little foxed by the ending.
I loved it. I have a signed copy of it and I am a bit smug about that. I also have it on Kindle (it is my policy never to read a signed book). It made me smile a little when I read all the familiar place names, picturing the scene as I read. Although… I’m not sure that with his descriptions of the town, the violence and the slightly murky past the town is famed for, Mr Burston has done much for the tourist industry in Bridgend. In the towns defence, I spent an enjoyable night out with the lads from the local depot a couple of years ago, although by ten o’clock every person in every pub did seem to be singing Delilah. I can’t for the life of me think why… 😉
A poignant, moving and tension building 5 stars from me.
The Black Path is available to buy from the following retailers.