Whistle in the Dark by Emma Healey begins with an ending; a sixteen-year old girl, lost in the Peak District, has been found and is in hospital with her parents. Healey tells the story of the aftermath as Jen, Lana’s mother, tries desperately to unravel the truth of what happened to her daughter. In the face of Lana’s reluctance to speak, Jen’s desperation evolves into obsession and the story circles into myth, obfuscation and misunderstanding. For the reader, there is a lot to unravel.
Told entirely from Jen’s POV, by halfway through I was beginning to question Jen’s state of mind and whether she was an unreliable narrator. There is a lot of smoke and shadows in the telling of this story, interwoven with the crystals of Jen’s friend Grace, the fibs of Lana’s schoolfriend Bethany, the pragmatic questioning and Instagram comments by Jen’s mother Lily, and Jen’s fertile imagination. There were times when it felt a little like being whizzed around in a washing machine. But through it all shines Healey’s ability to draw pictures with words, “The heavy summer foliage that lined the motorway seemed to have taken on its own light, as if the sun had splintered into a thousand pieces and hung, glowing, on the trees. The whites of things, of dresses and china cups and tablecloths, was dazzling.”
I admit there were times in the final third when I just wanted the story to get on with it, to find out where Lana had been for those four missing days. I became as mystified as Jen and could understand her distraction, her inability to judge the truth of what was happening around her as Healey loads on the mysteries. Did Lana return home with an invisible friend? Or a ghost? Jen reads speculation online that something mystical had happened to Lana; she was abducted by aliens, had taken the stairs down to Hell, or stepped into a time circle. This was coupled with my feeling of indulgence on the part of the author, that some short anecdotes were included because they were interesting rather than essential. And then comes a wonderful snippy sentence that brings you back to the heart of everything; for example, when Jen is driving north, “Well, if she cried enough, Jen thought, at least she might not need to wee again for another forty miles.”
An interesting read. A study of the parental difficulties caring for a troubled teenager, where the line stands between caring and invasion of privacy, of how and when to trust a troubled adolescent and when to step in. A veritable minefield. Lana has a history of cutting and an overdose attempt before the disappearance; post-disappearance, Jen alternates between anger and frustration, and treading on eggshells. The online stalking, the shadowing on the walk to school, the listening at the bedroom door, all reinforce the lesson that a snooper often finds something unexpected, something worse, something that should remain private until revealed. A reminder that often the most simple explanation is true.
An interesting read and competent second novel, but not a compelling page-turner like Healey’s wonderful debut Elizabeth is Missing. Read my review here.
‘Whistle in the Dark’ by Emma Healey [UK: Viking]
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