Another book that I was hugely anticipating the arrival of this year, especially when the magpie part of my brain started seeing the gorgeous proofs going out, was Emma Healey’s Whistle in the Dark. Her second novel following Elizabeth is Missing which I absolutely adored when I read it back in 2014, so much so it was in my top three reads for that year. So no pressure for Whistle in the Dark then…
The sun had sunk behind the building and all the previously golden edges were now grey. The relief Jen felt at seeing Lana again was turning into something else, and though she mostly wanted to bundle her up and rock her and feel the weight of her and do anything she could to convince herself that her daughter was really okay, there was a thin thread of dread within her too. She was frightened to tug on it but knew she wouldn’t be able to resist for long.
‘How did you get lost?’ she said to Lana, who opened and shut her eyes.
As Whistle in the Dark opens we join Jen at the hospital some hours after her daughter has been found following her disappearance several days before. We soon learn that Jen has had an extra sense of guilt as Lana went missing on an artistic retreat with her mother, to bring them closer together after some difficult times of late. The question that soon comes to obsess Jen, becoming the focus of the novel for us as readers, is where on earth Lana went for those four days and what may or may not have happened to her. Lana stays silent but what, if anything, might she be hiding or simply too scared to share?
Lana feigned sleep all the way to London: Jen knew she was feigning because she’d seen her sleep, the corners of her mouth wet, her arms twisted around each other, her legs splayed. She knew this neat, dry sleeper on the back seat of the car was a fiction.
Where I think Healey excels in her second novel is with the tension and the atmosphere. Not simply when the book begins, with a real momentum from the off, it remains throughout those first adrenaline fuelled days to weeks later when things start to settle and get back to normality. Well, as normal as things can be when your daughter is starting to talk a little differently, only be able to sleep when she can see the sky and a mysterious cat keeps turning up inside your house.
Linking in with the brooding atmosphere, one of other the elements that I enjoyed, if that is the right word, in Whistle in the Dark is the sense of ‘other’ that sometimes comes to the fore. We are told of a time when Jen believes that she met a modern incarnation of Rumpelstiltskin, we learn there are groups online who are all trying to work out what happened to Lana from being lured into a reservoir by a mermaid, spirited away by ghosts, dragged to hell by the devil, abducted by aliens (my hometown getting an infamous mention, which I kind of loved) who reportedly appear with flashing lights in the woods or forced into rituals of a local cult. This online fever, a part of which becomes a bigger strand in the story, shows the dangers of the digital world let alone the supernatural one or the real one as Jen remains convinced her daughter has been part of some kind of assault and kidnapping.
Bonsall is at the centre of what is known as the Matlock Triangle, where there are often reports of strange lights, eerie noises and things hovering in the sky, and one of the reports comes from the night of Lana Maddox’s disappearance. Did aliens come down and kidnap her before wiping her memory and dropping her back off on Earth?
You may sense there is a ‘but’ coming here, and you would be right. I found after the first third of the novel there was a complete change in momentum as Lana and Jen both try and get on with their lives whilst not getting on with their lives at all, more so in the case of Jen. As they both find themselves stuck at home with each other there becomes a claustrophobic, cloying, slightly repetitive nature which started to feel like wading through treacle. I know, that sounds harsh. BUT and here is another ‘but’ to combat the last one, having had distance from the book I think that is how you are meant to feel. After such a heightened drama in anyone’s life at some point things return to ‘normal’ and in many ways there can be a huge comedown from the adrenalin when something huge happens in your life. The mundanities of life can return, only they seem even more mundane in comparison. So, I think that was Healey’s intention. It also serves as a quieter phase in the novel where suspicions and theories are mulled over further, before the tension is racked up again towards the ending which I thought Healey wrote brilliantly.
‘Why don’t you take a photo of this for Instagram? The colours are so vibrant.’
‘No one is interested in a pissing scone, Mum. That’s not the point. Strawberry jam is lame.’
I should also add her that one of the things that I loved throughout was how well Healey writes about teenagers, the mother and daughter bond and ever so wryly depicts middle class life and family domesticity. From the outside world in instances such as the art retreat where they meet Peny, a woman who insists “she could tell if you pronounced her name with two n’s”; to the interiors of the family home where Jen’s obsession with social media, and totally not getting it but desperately tries to use it to engage with her daughter. The novel also looks at single motherhood, sibling rivalry, the cracks in marriages and much more, all written with such wonderful observations of human nature.
Following Elizabeth is Missing, which was so loved, was going to be a hard act. Healey has proved again with Whistle in the Dark, interestingly once again with lost memories, she can write the lives and scenarios of everyday people going through extraordinary times with compassion, emotion, wry wit and an eye for the subtleties and complexities of human nature that makes her fiction so compelling and poignant. I will be very much looking forward to book three.