Whistle In The Dark…
About the Book:
Jen’s 15-year-old daughter goes missing for four agonizing days. When Lana is found, unharmed, in the middle of the desolate countryside, everyone thinks the worst is over. But Lana refuses to tell anyone what happened, and the police draw a blank. The once-happy, loving family return to London, where things start to fall apart. Lana begins acting strangely: refusing to go to school, and sleeping with the light on.
As Lana stays stubbornly silent, Jen desperately tries to reach out to a daughter who has become a stranger.
I have so much love for this novel; it’s one of those ‘everyone NEEDS to read this’ kind of deals for me. I’m sure being a parent forms a large part on why I connected so strongly with Whistle In The Dark, but truly, Emma Healey is just out of this world fabulous with words. Honestly, for this to be only her second novel; she has so much talent. I need to read Elizabeth Is Missing now, which was her debut, because I feel certain it will be a novel that I’m going to love as well.
Now, onto Whistle In The Dark and why I loved it so much. The story is narrated by Jen, mother of the missing teen Lana. Jen was a character I instantly connected with. I liked her a lot. She was by no means perfect, and that suited me just fine because she was the real deal. This novel grounds itself in the connections between it’s characters. Jen and her husband Hugh, Jen and her mother Lily, Jen and her friend Grace, Jen and her eldest daughter Meg, and of course, Jen with her youngest daughter, Lana. Each of these people got a different bit of Jen, but Lana was the one sucking her dry. I didn’t like Lana. Even accounting for her depression and the affect that has on a person, I thought she was quite a mean girl, deliberately uncaring towards her mother and dismissive of her sister. Her grandmother’s friend had labelled her as an attention seeker, and I have to admit, I could see where she was coming from. There were times when she was just so harsh towards Jen, openly criticising her and doing exaggerated impressions of her mother purely as a means of putting her down. Lana also did some strange things that resulted in her driving Jen a little crazy. So all in all, I wasn’t impressed with Lana.
But that’s the thing with this novel. It’s so honest and real, and you’re sitting there hating on a teenager who is seriously depressed, feeling so much sympathy for her mother. I can’t even begin to imagine what it would be like to have a daughter who is so depressed that you can’t leave painkillers in the house for fear she’ll try and swallow them all; you have to buy a safe for all of the knives and forks and scissors because if they’re left lying around, she’ll use them to cut herself. You can’t even ask her questions because you risk overwhelming her. I could feel Jen’s worry, her frustration, her fear. And then there’s this, when Lana gives Jen some insight into what she’s feeling:
“‘I did that thing that Dr Greenbaum said to do,’ Lana said. ‘I found a picture and I wrote about it.’
‘That was quick.’
Lana nodded and showed Jen her phone. A photograph from a museum lit the screen: a glass case full of songbirds, all posed at different angles, as if they were landing or taking off from a painted tree.
‘And I wrote about how it relates to me.’
She handed Jen a piece of blue-lined paper, covered in biroed words which had been written with such pressure that they’d left raised patterns on the other side of the page, like a form of Braille.
My body feels like it’s made up of a thousand tiny birds flapping their wings inside my skin: a blue tit at my elbow, a sparrow along my thigh, a pigeon jabbing me in the belly button. I can hardly walk, I can hardly hold myself up, without the exhausting tickling of their feathers. The ticklishness is what makes me scratch at myself, with fingernails and pens and scalpels.
Sometimes, when I see a bird in the garden or a park, I expect it to fly right into me, so I’d rather not go outside.
Sometimes, I don’t dare move my head, or speak out loud, in case I cause a whirlwind of wings and claws inside me.
Sometimes, questions flutter from their beaks: What is the point, they say, how long will this go on? Can you stand it for many more years, or months, or days? Where can you escape to? When will it all end?
Sometimes, I think of ways to get rid of the birds, to poison them, to fall from a great height and feel them rush out of me.
Sometimes, I wish someone would crush them out of me.”
The agony of reading this, as a mother. And then I felt really bad for hating Lana, although, she certainly continued to test me throughout the novel. Lana is a classic example of a person who hurts the one they love the most, over and over. I think she was sure, deep down, that her mother was the one she could always count on, no matter what.
Jen and Hugh as a team were fantastic. I really enjoyed bearing witness to their marriage and watching them parent both of their daughters, even though Meg was 26 and not living at home. We were privy to a lot of everyday interaction between them and as well as being entertaining, this had the valuable effect of portraying Jen and Hugh as normal parents in a normal relationship. There was no dysfunction within their household, which brings the real issue to the fore: normal parents can have kids with mental health issues. In other words, it can happen to anyone. Hugh was such a support to Jen, who really was bearing the brunt of this latest crisis with Lana. He always listened to what Jen had to say, and sometimes he’d agree, but often times he would provide some perspective, such as in this passage:
“‘It’s one of the photos from the album in the dining room,’ Jen said. ‘She must have scanned or photographed it specially. And it says: hashtag Happy Mother’s Day, and a hashtag proud daughter and Words can’t express how important the bond between mother and daughter is.’
‘You seem annoyed,” Hugh said, not looking up from his book, though he hadn’t turned the page in a while.
‘Well, it’s all just lies.’
‘She posts these pictures, these sentiments, as if she’s living them, as if they mean something, but in reality she couldn’t care less about any of it. She wants her friends to think she’s done something for Mother’s Day, but not her own mother.’
‘Or,’ Hugh rubbed his hands across his face – ‘that’s what’s going on in her head, and she can put it on social media but doesn’t know how to express it to you directly.’”
Theirs was a great relationship, one of the best I’ve read in recent memory.
All throughout this story, Jen is seeking the truth. Where did Lana go for four days? What happened to her while she was missing? Lana refuses to say, claiming that she can’t remember, yet inconsistencies in her story over time indicate that she is just deliberately not telling. Jen becomes consumed with knowing, but Hugh is less concerned, figuring they’ll find out one day and why not just focus on Lana in the here and now? Meg is convinced her sister is lying, but she’s got things going on in her own life that concern her more and theirs is not a close relationship, with 11 years between them. What Meg does do though, is provide a lot of support to Jen, so their relationship has an entirely different tone to it compared to Jen and Lana. This is valuable for Jen who constantly questions herself as a mother each time Lana does something else newly concerning. Communication is a barrier between Jen and Lana. Lana would make a habit of not answering Jen, almost like a toddler having a tantrum. It was interesting to finally get some perspective on why Lana always did this:
“Jen felt herself start to pant. ‘But I want to talk to you.’
‘You say that Mum, but you don’t want to listen.’
‘Yes, I do. I’ve asked you so many times to tell me what you’re thinking, what you’re feeling, what’s happened.’
‘Ugh. That’s what I mean. You don’t listen. You just want me to answer a bunch of questions. And maybe I don’t want to answer your questions, maybe your questions hurt and make me feel bad, maybe I want to talk about something else.’”
In the end, Jen does find out the full story of where Lana was and what happened to her, but not from Lana herself – of course! It’s difficult and heartbreaking and again, so authentic. Jen has to pick herself up and go back to being a mother, because in the midst of finding out the truth about her youngest daughter, her eldest one needs her. Such is the stuff of parenting when you have more than one child. This is such a powerful novel, a true testament of the love a parent has for their offspring, the elasticity of family connections and how, in the midst of darkness, as parents, we hold on tight even during the times we want to let go.
Thanks is extended to Penguin Random House Australia for providing me with a copy of Whistle In The Dark for review.
About the Author:
Emma Healey grew up in London. She has spent most of her working life in libraries, bookshops and galleries. She completed the MA in Creative Writing: Prose at UEA in 2011. Elizabeth Is Missing, her first novel, was a Sunday Times bestseller, won the Costa First Novel Award 2014 and was shortlisted for the National Book Awards Popular Fiction Book of the Year. Whistle in the Dark is her second novel.