UEA graduate Emma Healey sold over a million copies of her debut novel, Elizabeth is Missing, a psychological mystery narrated by the heroine who has dementia. It was the winner of the Costa First Novel Award 2014, and shortlisted for multiple National Book Awards, whilst being generally hailed by readers as a classic page-turner: ‘one of those books you can’t put down.’ But what to make of her second novel?
With such an impressive act to follow, Whistle in The Dark will surely be met with high expectations from her existing readers. Listening to Emma Healey speak as part UEA’s Literature Festival this year confirmed this, with a packed lecture theatre and audience asking questions a-plenty on both her new and previous work.
Counting myself as one such audience member, and having now read her book, it can safely be said that Whistle in The Dark is not a disappointment. Similar in genre, it follows teenager Lana as she navigates through life whilst self-harming and suffering with depression. Her mother, Jen, narrates the story, which begins with the pair attending an organised painting holiday in the Peak District. It all goes horribly wrong very quickly, however, and Lana ends up going missing for four whole days. No one knows where she has been, and it falls to her mother to solve this mystery.
One of the greatest strengths of this book is the constant littering of red herrings in the fractured narrative leading up to this. Small details (that may or may not be important) feed the mind of the reader, just as they feed Jen’s obsession with finding out what happened.
Equally compelling are the intricacies in the portrayal of a mother-daughter relationship. Healey spoke extensively about her belief that it is the realistic relationships between characters that drives her, as something she finds most interesting in writing and reading fiction. This is evident in Whistle in the Dark, especially in the great lengths, Jen goes to in attempting to understand the workings of her daughter’s mind. Interestingly, Healey herself went through a similar ‘breakdown’ to Lana when she was fifteen, and nearly sectioned. Writing about teenage depression from a different perspective was ‘therapeutic’, she said, although she made it clear that this book was not a ‘self-indulgent’ piece of biography. Jen bears no resemblance to her own mother (she stated that her mother would like this emphasised!) and she wrote Lana to be ‘much cooler’ than she ever was.
It is important that Healey didn’t want this to be a book that was answering ‘why is Lana depressed?’ There was no particular reason for her own, she said, having often almost wished for something to justify her feelings. Depression is a mental illness, and though situation can be a large contributor, it is to Healey’s credit that Whistle in The Dark paints a depression that is not simplified or reduced to circumstance.
All in all, it is the way that this book sails so closely to the truth that makes it utterly compelling. Here’s hoping for a third novel from Healey.