Written by Emma Healey — The second novel, much like a musician’s second album, can prove a troublesome beast. Especially if, like Emma Healey, your debut created such a stir. Elizabeth is Missing received a five-star review on this site and was chosen as a book of the year – it subsequently went on to win the Costa First Novel Award, was shortlisted for National Book Awards Popular Fiction Book and New Writer of the Year and longlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize and the Baileys Prize for Women’s Fiction.
That was back in 2014 – no wonder fans of Healey’s work have welcomed the new arrival, Whistle in the Dark, with open arms. It has a cover very reminiscent of Elizabeth is Missing, but does it live up to that first, fabulous piece of work?
It all starts with a happy ending. Jen and her 15-year-old daughter Lana have been enjoying a painting holiday in the Derbyshire Peak District when Lana disappears. For four long days, Jen and her husband Hugh are beside themselves with worry. Then Lana reappears, seemingly unharmed, but with no memory of where she’s been or what she was doing.
Thus begins Jen’s search for the truth – and boy, she is dogged in her determination to get to the bottom of it all. Lana, who has a history of depression, is disinclined to share any details of the lost four days, and the more her mother probes the more she withdraws into herself. She develops a fear of the dark and refuses to use the London Underground. She’s secretive and seems to resent Jen’s relentless curiosity. The police investigate and come up with nothing, much to Jen’ frustration – but how far can you push a fragile teenager before she shatters?
There’s a lot that’s dark and downbeat about this book, but Healey pulls us out of the doldrums by way of her sparkling characterisations. Lana is such a realistic teenager, exuding attitude and full of put downs for her parents, and her mother in particular. She is the central point from which everything else radiates, and Healey never shies away from tackling the issues that come hand in hand with teenage depression. Jen is hard to love, but I did enjoy her interactions with long-suffering husband Hugh. Their moments together offer some light in a tale which spends much of its time in the murky shadows. Hugh, and Lana’s older, pregnant, gay sister Meg between them add a little grounding to the narrative.
Healey has a literary style which is in turns pleasing and frustrating. Don’t expect any fast pacing; instead, prepare yourself for a modest meander. The choppy chapter lengths are also a little disconcerting. They can range from several pages long to a mere sentence and contribute to a feeling of disorientation which persists throughout Whistle in the Dark. The way each chapter has its own short heading also makes some of them appear more like meditations and musings than any kind of significant step forward in the journey.
So, has Emma Healey managed to match Elizabeth is Missing? Sadly, no – but it was always going to be a hard act to follow. Whistle in the Dark is beautifully written, but the plot is sketchy and the final denouement may disappoint. You’ll spend much of the book thinking something exciting is bound to happen on the next page, but somehow it never does.
CFL Rating: 3 Stars