Emma Healey’s debut novel, “Elizabeth is Missing”, was published in 2014 and won the Costa Book Award for First Novel. I found it to be an engaging, heartbreaking story of the reality of dementia, as Maud searches for her missing best friend. She has flashes of realization that she has asked these same people the same questions, but there’s nothing she can do about it and she soon lapses back into the panicked searching for Elizabeth, unable to focus on anything else.
Healey’s second novel, “Whistle in the Dark”, is the story of a mother and daughter – Jen and Lana. I read this a couple of weeks ago and had to look up the names of the main characters – a big difference to the level of interest I had to the first novel. This review isn’t going to just be a comparison between the two books, I promise!
The story opens with Lana’s miraculous return after being missing for four days while on an art trip with Jen. She’s okay but has mysterious injuries consistent with sexual assault and has refused a rape kit. She’s withdrawn and has a large gash on the back of her head, with no memory of how or what happened.
They return to London with Jen’s husband and Lana’s father, and gradually the cast of the story increases. The older sister, Meg, comes into view with a lesbian pregnancy as news. Jen’s precarious job in marketing passes by before she’s asked to take a leave of absence to recover after the trauma of losing Lana, and finding her again without knowing what happened.
The narrative perspective is all from Jen and I found it quite difficult to be sympathetic. Lana is clearly depressed and has been suffering from anxiety and depression for a long time even before her disappearance. Jen hounds, harasses and spies on her in an effort to uncover what happened. She examines evidence, decides her daughter went to a literal hell and back and then thinks she’s hiding an intimate relationship before fixating on a religious obsession. It was difficult to not shout ‘just leave her alone and give her cups of tea and a blanket, you selfish, self serving woman’ quite a lot.
She also becomes suspicious of the relationship between Lana and her husband, Hugh. They whisper in rooms and stop talking when she comes in. As the reader and being outside of the story, it’s easy to see that her family are worried about her when she’s clearly struggling.
I did find the story itself interesting – the juxtaposition between the bustle of London and the starkness of the hills and caves provides a definite backdrop to paint the details in. The climactic last chapters provided a good payoff but ultimately for me, I expected more. More than ‘where did Lana go?’, as laid out in the blurb on the back of the book.
Perhaps I couldn’t relate to Jen because I do not have a teenage daughter, and definitely not one who is depressed and has disappeared for four days. I was quite interested in Meg though, and the relationship between her and Lana. The way it was painted by Jen was apparently very differently perceived by the rest of the family, and for me it’s the gap between the perception and the reality which makes for the most interesting stories.