Para­ble of a prodi­gal child: lost and found but still a mys­tery

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - BOOKS REVIEWS - DE­CLAN BURKE

WHISTLEINT­HEDARK Emma Healey Vik­ing , 328pp, £12.99

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?”

Grip­ping­tale

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 isa deeply af­fect­ing ac­count of one woman’s quiet but un­yield­ing re­fusal to al­low hope to suc­cumb to help­less­ness and de­spair.

De­clan Burke is an au­thor and jour­nal­ist. He is cur­rentlyaDub­linCi­tyCoun­cil/Unesco writer-in-res­i­dence

Emma Healey: won the Costa Book Award for First Novel

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