Whistle in the Dark by Emma Healey review: a gripping tale
This second novel from the Costa award-winning author examines the difficulties in dealing with a loved one’s depression
Emma Healey: serious themes with a touch of deadpan gallows humour
Whistle in the Dark
Emma Healey’s Whistle in the Dark begins where more conventional novels might end, with teenager Lana Maddox, who has been missing for four days in the Peak District, safe in hospital and being fussed over by her parents, Jen and Hugh. Lana doesn’t appear to have suffered any physical trauma, but her inability – or unwillingness – to remember where she was, or what happened, or who she was with, allows Jen’s vivid imagination to run riot.
Is Lana so traumatised that she refuses to engage with her experience? Was she abducted by the oddball birdwatcher Matthew, with whom Lana had begun a tentative romance? Or was she subjected to bizarre horrors by Stephen, a member of the New Lollards Fellowship religious cult, and who has an unhealthy obsession with children descending into hell? Complicating matters further is Lana’s depression, which predates her disappearance and has previously manifested itself in self-harm and suicidal ideation.
Healey’s second novel reprises a number of elements from her debut, Elizabeth is Missing (2014), which won the Costa Book Award for First Novel. There the mental health issue was dementia, with octogenarian Maud assuming the role of amateur sleuth as she investigates the whereabouts of her missing friend. Here Jen imagines herself “a female detective who was also an artist”, who follows Lana to school, “shadowing her own daughter, like some grubby detective in a hardboiled crime novel”. The references are self-mocking, however, accentuating the extent to which Jen has discovered herself lost in the labyrinth of Lana’s depression, failing miserably to decipher the signs and decode the teenage world: “Lana, who wasn’t talking to her that day, wasn’t talking to her in an ordinary teenage way, or perhaps wasn’t talking to her in a troubled teenage way. How were you supposed to tell?”
‘Hum of paranoia’
As the novel proceeds, however, the reader begins to wonder whose mental health is being investigated. Jen starts to hallucinate, seeing a cat wandering in her home in the small hours; she grows excessively, although perhaps not unjustifiably, irritated with being referred to as Mum by Lana’s psychiatrist, Dr Greenbaum. As Jen stalks her daughter online, endlessly obsessing over the meanings of Lana’s social media posts, she gradually becomes aware of “the hum of paranoia beneath her thoughts, a hum that rose in pitch whenever she and Lana were alone together”.
It’s a gripping tale, one that explores in an accessible, informal style the myriad difficulties in dealing with a loved one’s depression – the reader, given access to Jen’s internal monologues, can hardly fail to be charmed by her whimsical attempts to impose order on her chaotic thought processes. An accomplished amateur artist, Jen is also capable of delivering arresting visual imagery, such as when she remembers the day Lana jumped off a Tube on to the platform just as the train was about to pull away, leaving behind a frozen Jen, who instantly recalls the flickering film footage of Emily Davison throwing herself under the king’s horse at the 1913 Epsom Derby: “The moment when the small body detached itself from the crowd and then disappeared under the hooves, seemed literally to dissolve on impact”.
Lana is a bracingly spiky character, resistant to her mother’s probing, refusing to provide reassurance, and generally behaving as teenagers tend to do as they struggle to establish an independent identity. Her fascination with the more macabre representations of organised religion – descents into hell, the comparison of her own self-harm with stigmata – culminates in Jen’s mother Lily drawing parallels between Lana and Jesus. She compares her depression to a spell in the wilderness, suggesting that the cave in which Lana took shelter might be considered a tomb from which she reappeared after a number of days, a theory Jen dryly debunks by reminding her mother that Lana isn’t exactly the soul of kindness.
Pervaded by that quality of deadpan gallows humour, and strewn, as any self-respecting parody of a detective novel should be, with a veritable shoal of red herrings as to what really happened to Lana, Whistle in the Dark is a deeply affecting account of one woman’s quiet but unyielding refusal to allow hope succumb to helplessness and despair.
Declan Burke is an author and journalist. He is currently a Dublin City Council/Unesco writer-in-residence.