Category Archives: Emma Healey

Whistle in the Dark – Emma Healey

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…

Penguin Books, hardback, 2018, fiction, 336 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

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.

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Filed under Emma Healey, Penguin Books, Review

Elizabeth is Missing – Emma Healey

One of the biggest joys of reading is the moment when you find a book that you know is going to remain one of favourite reads for years and years to come, if not the rest of your reading life. It may be that the prose simply sings to you, the subject matter may chime with something in your own life, it may hit you emotionally, or the characters walk off the page and into your brain nestling there leaving you thinking about them and their story long after you have finished the book. In the case of Elizabeth is Missing, Emma Healey’s debut novel, it was all of these things and more.

Penguin Viking Books, hardback, 2014, fiction, 288 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Take two mysteries; the recent disappearance of one of your closest friends and the disappearance of a family member in the past, and tell their stories through an 82 year old narrator suffering from dementia and you might have a very confusing and rather daunting read ahead of you. Not in the case of Elizabeth is Missing which, as you may have guessed, is based around that exact premise.

From the start of the novel we meet Maud who, when she is not repeatedly going to the corner shop and buying more (and more) tinned peaches, is always finding notes in her pockets that remind her that her friend Elizabeth is missing. She may sometimes forget the name of the women who come and make her tea or clean her house but with these notes everywhere possible she cannot forget this and she must find out where she went, why her house is empty and why Elizabeth’s son never seems to care. At the start of the novel Maud also discovers a compact mirror, where we are not initially sure, which suddenly brings back the disappearance and mystery of what happened to her sister Sukey 70 years ago.

Whilst we find the mysteries fascinating and are eager to follow Maud as she tries to work it all out, giving the book the element of a thriller and mystery yet being very much a literary novel, those around her do not feel the same, in fact they find it infuriating.

Helen sighs again. She’s doing a lot of that lately. She won’t listen, won’t take me seriously, imagines that I want to live in the past. I know what she’s thinking, that I’ve lost my marbles, that Elizabeth is perfectly well at home and I just don’t remember having seen her recently. But it’s not true. I forget things – I know that – but I’m not mad. Not yet. And I’m sick of being treated as if I am. I’m tired of the sympathetic smiles and the little pats people give you when you get things confused, and I’m bloody fed up with everyone deferring to Helen rather than listening to what I have to say. My heartbeat quickens and I clench my teeth.  I have a terrible urge to kick Helen under the table. I kick the table leg instead. The shiny salt and pepper shakers rattle against each other and a wine glass starts to topple. Helen catches it. ‘Mum,’ she says. ‘Be careful. You’ll break something.’

It is through this that Healey wonderfully creates both the angles of a double edged sword of Maud’s current situation, which alongside the mysteries at its heart create a stunningly crafted novel. On the one hand we feel for Maud both in terms of her utter assurance that her friend has gone missing and in the frustration she feels at forgetting things and not being believed. On the other we see how hard it is for the carers of someone and how tough it can be despite how much you might love them. The situation is written and described so honestly, sometimes you feel infuriated with Helen being infuriated with Maud, that it hits you with an emotional wallop.

Having personally been a carer for someone who was terminally ill and someone who used to visit their great uncle with dementia the book really struck chords with me but I think it would with any reader who has a heart to be frank. Healey doesn’t stop there though as she adds depths plus light and shade by giving Elizabeth is Missing both some darkly funny parts (I cackled) and also some utterly gut wrenching ones (I cried three times both times I read the book – yes I have read it twice I loved it so). One minute we will be laughing as Maud goes to buy another tin of peaches, then crying as she is unable to work out where home or her toilet is. Or laughing at a visit from the police before wanting to weep as her condition worsens, another devastating yet brilliant thing for Healey to show, and she realises she is forgetting those around her.

My stomach seems to have dissolved inside me. I didn’t know my own daughter, and it feels like a reproach to hear her call me Mum.

The star of the show is Healey’s writing; in her creation of such an unflinchingly vivid situation and putting us through all the emotions that come with it and her creation of Maud. Both as an elderly woman with dementia and as a young naïve girl in the (brilliantly created) 1940’s, she is one of my favourite characters in years and spending time with her was an absolute joy even when the book takes its darker twists. I still think of her and this book often.

In case you hadn’t guessed I think Elizabeth is Missing is an incredible novel. It is also a novel that looks at the elderly, of whom there are more and more as we live longer and longer and yet we seem to shy away from discussing. Emma Healey creates an insightful, funny, touching and often heart-breaking tale of Maud and the mysteries of her life in a world she is struggling to remember. I laughed. I cried. I wanted to start it all over again the moment I had turned the last page. Highly recommended, in fact I couldn’t recommend it more, easily one of my favourite books of the year. Read it.

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Filed under Books of 2014, Emma Healey, Penguin Books, Review, Viking Books