Book review: ‘Whistle in the Dark’ by Emma Healey

(no spoilers)

‘Whistle in the Dark’ was really a beautiful surprise. The premise is interesting from the get-go – Jen is a woman dealing with the lingering threat of her fifteen-year-old daughter Lana’s disappearance. In the first few sentences, we learn that Lana has been found alive after four days missing alone in the Lake District. She can’t (or won’t) tell anyone what happened or where she was, leaving her confused family to consider the worst. 

As a protagonist, Jen draws you into her world quickly. We immediately feel empathy for her, as Healey writes in beautiful detail about the churning of her overactive and terrified mind. She has always tried hard – too hard, Lana would say – to understand her daughter’s depression and self-destructive tendencies. She is self-aware but unapologetic, as we understand clearly she would do just anything to save her daughter’s life: ‘After months of this, she still had no idea how to react, so she went to the library, where she wrote lists of life events and trigger and biological connections, filled in and scored emotional-discomfort questionnaires, kept a mood summary and a sleep diary and an activity log and watched Lana for symptoms. She monitored herself for Unhelpful Thought Cycles (which always began with I’m a failure), and practised conversation openers in front of the mirror in the Ladies.’

The terror that spills over from those four days, and the frustration she feels when she can’t get any answers to her questions, is what fuels her obsession to find out the truth: ‘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.’

Healey manages to write a very characterful novel, while also maintaining a really poetic writing style. There were sentences every few pages that were just beautifully evocative and musical, ‘A sharp stone had been left in the doorway, just where someone might place a foot, where a mother might place a foot, where a mother already nervous and trembling might place a foot’, and yet still not out of place in the context of the rest of the novel: ‘Lying on the bed next to Hugh, the gold of that morning lingered under her eyelids, a liquid film: hope. She had to be careful not to cry it away.’

Author, Emma Healey. Photo credit to The Guardian.

Jen’s overactive imagination means that she picks up tiny details in her surroundings that really help ground the reader in her experience. Even though she doesn’t write in first person, Healey still manages to give you deep insight into their thoughts, while retaining a playfulness which was really interesting. She uses brackets in the same way that Gates uses run-on sentences in Jernigan, to suggest an interruption in thought. Some of my favorite examples are: 

Jen held the phone away from her ear to continue munching on the toast (when had she spread marmalade on it?) until Bethany’s voice came through clearly again.’

‘The colour of the cardigan she wore (teal) and the colour of the wool she was knitting with (dark turquoise) were so close it seemed as though she were adding to her own clothes.’

Healey also includes little mini-stories and sectionals which are their own chapter, and includes other ‘big voice’ elements (Chuck Palahniuk again) like newspaper clippings, website extracts and receipts etc. to ground the story in reality. 

Jen isn’t able to connect with her daughter – she doesn’t respect her privacy, she bombards her with questions and even follows her down the street to make sure she’s going to school: ‘She sounded just like her therapist, and the tone made Jen feel uneasy. It was unnatural in the voice of a fifteen-year-old and it gave away Jen’s failure as a mother, someone who’s had to fall back on professionals.’ 

She’s the definition of a helicopter mum, and we see the damage she’s doing, inadvertently pushing her daughter further and further away – but we understand. We can feel her terror that Lana is going to kill herself, and these emotions are explored and dissected through flashbacks and details. She looks at herself from the point of view of other people a lot, seeing a judgement of herself reflected in them, but has a level of self-awareness there too: ‘Jen never seemed to get the reaction she expected from other people. It was as though they didn’t think she was the person she thought she was.’

Under the disguise of a conventional ‘mystery’ novel, where you are trying to work out who could have kidnapped the young girl, we actually journey to experience a far more unique understanding of people and their relationships. We see the personal suffering Jen (and Lana) undergo to get a little closer to each other.

It was great, honestly. I wasn’t quite as keen on the secondary story arc, which was Jen’s older daughter Grace giving birth to her best friend’s baby. It felt a little stuck on to act as the ticking clock down to the climax of the novel, and to prove that Jen doesn’t allow ignorance to get in the way of loving her daughters (Grace is gay), solidifying her flaw being that she loves too much. Grace felt older and wiser than Jen (deliberately), but still her storyline felt rather contrived.

Still, I highly recommend it! Shall I go back and read her debut novel, ‘Elizabeth is missing’ now?!

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