What They Do in the Dark: A Novel

  • Amanda Coe
  • W. W. Norton & Co.
  • 256 pp.

Two 10-year-old classmates — one privileged but neglected, another living in a state of feral existence — experience the darkness and dangers of childhood in a 1970s Yorkshire town.

Reviewed by Patricia Bochi

What They Do in the Dark, the debut novel by Amanda Coe, is a story about two 10-year old girls, Gemma Barlow and Pauline Bright, who have nothing in common, if not for the fact that they attend the same school, yet find themselves connected through a chain of events.

The story takes place in a Yorkshire town, in the north of England, in the mid-70s — a world in which settees are made of “plastic stuff [that] squeaks a lot when you shift on it,” and one wears “brushed nylon nighties.” But the quaint and dreary setting, as the reader quickly discovers, is deceptive and crumbles away under the weight of its characters’ unmet expectations, unfulfilled aspirations and thwarted ambitions.

On the outside, Gemma leads a good, if over-protected, life that includes holiday trips to Spain and pancakes at the Copper Kettle. The events in her life — her mother’s extramarital affair, parents’ breakup, her mother’s boyfriend’s pedophilia — leave her indifferent. Instead, she channels her emotions toward Lallie Paluza, the child star on TV, whom she describes as being “more vivid to me than anything else in my life — my parents, or school …”

Gemma’s classmate, Pauline, leads a feral existence, having to fend for herself by lying, stealing and bullying. The conditions in which she lives are as squalid and deprived as her relationship with her absentee mother (whom she calls Johanne) is fraught with fear and violence. Cigarettes, drugs and alcohol are on the table instead of food. “Pauline was adept at reading her mother’s moods and smelling her breath, and stayed out of the way if either seemed volatile.”

The world which Coe describes is disturbing. Children are victimized by adults. For example, when Gemma’s wannabe mother insists that she be grateful to her wealthy boyfriend, the reader comes to question the integrity of the mother’s motives. Similarly, were the adults at school not prejudiced against Pauline, the reader wonders if she would have acted differently. “Pauline never got a chance to read out loud at school. It was always the others, even if she bothered to put her hand up.”

Underneath her toughness, the reader catches glimpses of her yearning for a normal life, like Gemma’s. “She was so wholesomely like herself, Gemma, socks pulled up. Books one on top of the other, fringe exact.”

The story has an odd sub-plot, namely, the arrival of a film crew in town. The combination of a blue-collar town with the cinema world is Coe’s attempt at mixing fantasy (and Lallie) and reality together. But besides juxtaposing dysfunctional adults and 10-year olds teetering between childhood and adulthood, the device is marginally useful in deepening the complex brutality of Gemma and Pauline’s world.

The story is told from multiple points of view, but as the main narrator Gemma speaks in the first person, while Pauline is spoken of, in the third person, giving the impression that Gemma can speak reliably about herself and others while Pauline cannot.

The brief chapters or vignettes describe unrelated events that do not necessarily advance the narrative or the arc of the story but dig deeper into the psychological makeup of the characters. Yet, by giving each event equal narrative weight, Coe prolongs the suspense before delivering the final punch.

What They Do in the Dark is a difficult book to read on several accounts, first and foremost, its theme. Sadly, child neglect, prostitution, exploitation and violence, which Amanda Coe’s book takes on, remain current no matter what decade. But it is also difficult in terms of its vivid scenes and crude language (and to a lesser extent, its heavy use of British slang and colloquialisms for the American reader). Paradoxically, without such intensity Coe might not render this dark world so convincingly.

Reading What They Do in the Dark is like watching a psychological thriller. The characters go through a chain of disturbing events, the atmosphere is volatile and the reader is gripped by the sense of marching inexorably toward an unhappy resolution. But he must wait, as Amanda Coe builds the story slowly, by accretion, before bringing it to its abrupt and horrifying denouement.

Patricia Bochi is a writer who lives outside Washington, D.C.

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