Whistle in the Dark by Emma Healey

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Reviewed by Harriet

Four years after Emma Healey’s best selling Elizabeth is Missing comes her second novel, Whistle in the Dark. It’s a psychological thriller of sorts, but don’t expect any murders. This is an exploration of the troubled mind of a mother who can’t solve the mystery of her teenage daughter’s disappearance.

So far so familiar, you may be thinking. Readers are certainly inundated these days with missing offspring, whether its babies, toddlers, or indeed children of any age. Normally the search takes up the whole of the novel, with the missing person turning up, dead or alive, somewhere near the end. Not so here, though. The story actually begins with fifteen-year-old Lana having reappeared after being missing for four agonising days. 

Jen could only snatch a hug, a press of her cheek against Lana’s – soft and pale as a mushroom – while the paramedics slammed the ambulance door and wheeled Lana into the hospital. There was a gash on the ashen head, a scrape on the tender jaw, she was thin and cold and wrapped in tin foil, she smelled soggy and earthy and unclean, but it was okay; she was here, she was safe, she was alive. Nothing else mattered.

If only that were true. But Lana, who has been found wandering in a farmer’s field miles from anywhere, refuses to tell anyone where she was during those missing days. Despite the superficial wounds, she seems to be unhurt, though there are marks on her ankles as if made by thin rope. She insists they must have been made by her socks. She’s offered a rape kit but refuses. All she will say is that she got lost, and can’t remember where she’s been. Jen soothes her daughter off to sleep but inwardly she is in in turmoil: ‘A desperate rage ran through her like a wick. It scared her, this anger, unfocused and physical, and she wasn’t sure she could trust herself’. 

Life with Lana has been far from easy for the past two years. Moody and difficult, she has self-harmed and threatened suicide, and there have been visits to psychiatrists, doctors and social workers. Sick of the misery and conflict, Jen had booked the two of them onto a painting holiday in the Peak District, which had overall been a success. Despite her initial misgivings, Lana had thrown herself into the various activities with enthusiasm, not appearing to mind that she was at least thirty years younger than the rest of the participants. Jen was initially a bit disturbed when Lana started spending a lot of time with a rather strange man, Stephen, who turned out to be a born-again Christian, but she seemed to be healthily sceptical of his outlandish arguments and attempts to convert people. Then there was Matthew, the sixteen-year-old son of the holiday-centre manager, who took a shine to Lana and invited her to go badger watching. Could either of them have anything to do with Lana’s disappearance, wonders Jen? But Lana responds to all questions about her disappearance in the same way: ‘I can’t remember, Mum’.

We know all this within the first 25 or so pages of the novel. If you’re expecting some exciting twists or great revelations, you’ll be disappointed. Instead, though, there’s an exploration – sometimes agonising, sometimes comic – of the interactions between Lana, her parents, and her older sister Meg. The focus is always on the thoughts and feelings of Jen: her memories, worries and anxieties (‘Jen wished lying awake and worrying was an Olympic sport; that way, she’d be training for glory every night’). She’s blessed with a sensible husband, Hugh, who is kind and supportive, though not able to help in any concrete way. Then there’s Meg, who’s been in a gay relationship for some years but has now managed to get pregnant and broken up with her partner. But above all, there’s Lana – infuriating, rebellious, changeable, stubborn – everything a difficult teenager usually is, with the additional element of her apparent loss of memory. Can she really have forgotten? Jen thinks not, but all her schemes and stratagems, her attempts to get information out of Lana, fail to produce any result. Eventually, of course, all, or almost all, is revealed. Needless to say I’m not going to say anything about the denouement, but it’s cleverly done and answers some, though not all, of Jen’s questions.

I raced through this novel, totally absorbed by the brilliant portrayal of the mind of a caring but somewhat fragile woman, one who is often accused of imagining things, and is dealing with an apparently insuperable problem. Emma Healey writes beautifully, and I loved the construction of the novel, which is divided not into chapters but instead consists of short sections with often intriguing titles, which dart around between past and present without ever being confusing.  And I haven’t said how witty the writing often is – you wouldn’t think there’d be many laughs in a tense situation like this, but there are certainly moments which make you smile. All in all a very enjoyable novel.

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Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books

Emma Healey, Whistle in the Dark (Viking, 2018). 978-0241327623, 366pp., hardback.

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