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Whistle in the Dark


Whistle in the Dark

Emma Healey is something of a wunderkind. Her debut, ELIZABETH IS MISSING, won the Costa First Novel Award in 2014. In it, although not yet 30 at the time, she channeled an 82-year-old woman with a shaky grip on reality. Her new book, WHISTLE IN THE DARK, finds her occupying the heart and mind of a woman in her 50s whose teenage daughter vanishes for four days. Healey, in other words, likes to write outside her age group.

She also writes beyond her genre. Although both books are mysteries in a sense, they are not procedurals. There’s no relentless, all-knowing inspector, no tidy accumulation of clues. Healey is more interested in psychology than in plot; she likes to play with the line between fantasy and fact, paranoia and legitimate fear, ordinary life and crisis.

In WHISTLE IN THE DARK, the relationship between Jen and her daughter, 15-year-old Lana, is the whole point. It’s much less dark than Lionel Shriver’s WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN, narrated by the mother of the shooter in a high-school massacre, yet it is similar in that Healey’s book, too, becomes a meditation on motherhood and its trials. And when the child in question is a self-destructive, mostly unresponsive, often sullen adolescent, the stakes go way up.

Lana disappears during a week-long art workshop she’s gone on with her mother in the picturesque Peak District of the UK. As the novel begins, she’s just been found on a local farm. She’s dehydrated, with cuts and bruises and mysterious marks on her ankles, but otherwise unhurt. She refuses to be examined for evidence of sexual assault and claims to have forgotten where she was and what happened to her. The book consists of her mother’s obsessive attempts to find out, through persistent unanswered questions as well as her own sleuthing.

"WHISTLE IN THE DARK is a compelling novel. Healey is a heck of a writer who gives us an excruciatingly honest inside look at the parental psyche... Jen’s voice is splendidly, convincingly (and not always likably) real."

All sorts of eerie possibilities --- from rape to romance to a descent into Hell (yes, really) --- are suggested; Jen’s suspicions fall on virtually any male who had anything to do with Lana during the workshop. Her anxieties become more understandable when we learn that a year earlier, Lana had gathered a bag full of drugstore painkillers, presumably for a suicide attempt. Ever since, she’s been unstable, frustratingly distant, quick to put down any maternal effort to reach out. “[E]verything you think is wrong,” she sneers to her mother.

There are flashes of vulnerability. Lana is suddenly scared of the Tube (subway to us), of the dark; she insists on a night light. She talks in her sleep once: “I’m underground.” Also, there’s evidence of a nicer, healthier person buried somewhere inside. Jen spies on Lana’s Instagram account and finds an affectionate Mother’s Day post, but wonders why her daughter can’t express pride or love directly.

Is Lana’s refusal to engage merely ordinary teenage behavior, or troubled teenage behavior? That is the question. Jen’s mother reassures her that “teenagers are hard work” and urges her to let go a bit. “All they want is to get a reaction, and they don’t care which reaction.” But Jen can’t let go.

While Jen lurks and Lana resists, characters with their feet more firmly in the real world carry on. Lana’s older sister, Meg, is gay, pregnant and eminently sensible, as she always has been. Lana’s friend, Bethany, is a responsible girl with a part-time job. Lana’s father, Hugh, is a parental counterpart less obsessive than Jen. But none of these is a complete character. The twinned mother and daughter are the main event.

That’s both the weakness and the strength of WHISTLE IN THE DARK. The narrative stalls a bit after pages and pages of Jen’s day-by-day, hour-by-hour --- even moment-to-moment --- thoughts and fears. It’s all on the same level of desperate angst, with so many apparent clues thrown in (most of them red herrings, of course) that for me the story lost momentum. Jen is an amateur investigator, after all, with no clear grasp of the situation, so the plot gets pretty murky. Everyday life often is murky, I know, but in a novel, that sort of density and confusion doesn’t do a lot to induce me to turn pages.

I also think Healey relies a little too much on her unusual organizational device: short chapters, all bearing titles. While often clever or ironic (“A family of brilliant conversationalists”; “Getting it wrong”; Getting it wrong again”; “Displacement activity”), these headings make the novel rather choppy, and they tend to telegraph the author’s intentions rather than letting the reader figure things out for herself.

Despite these flaws, WHISTLE IN THE DARK is a compelling novel. Healey is a heck of a writer who gives us an excruciatingly honest inside look at the parental psyche --- sometimes tragically conflicted, sometimes bitterly amusing in its depiction of maternal self-doubt, love, anxiety, rage and pain. Jen’s voice is splendidly, convincingly (and not always likably) real.

In the end, the novel is a hybrid: part suspense fiction, part family drama. The universal wounded-teen vs. worried-mother scenario is magnified by Lana’s disappearance. Yet the mystery of her vanishing is dwarfed by the larger mystery of adolescent pain and self-harm: a puzzle that untold numbers of parents struggle with, a puzzle that neither the simple power of love nor the force of intellect can entirely solve.

Reviewed by Katherine B. Weissman on July 27, 2018

Whistle in the Dark
by Emma Healey