Whistle in the Dark: A Novel

  • By Emma Healey
  • Harper
  • 336 pp.

A troubled daughter's sudden disappearance and return further inflame her already-fissured family.

For those readers already familiar with Emma Healey’s powerhouse of a debut, Elizabeth Is Missing, the near virtuosity displayed in her second outing, Whistle in the Dark, will come as no surprise.

The novel begins, rather deceptively, as a mystery. Teenaged Lana disappears during the night while on holiday with her mother. After three horrifying days, Lana is discovered alive in a farmer’s field. She arrives bruised and bloodied at the hospital, where she’s greeted by her parents.   

Hugh and Jen Maddox have suffered through the second-worst parenting ordeal imaginable: facing the fear that their child might no longer be alive. Yet, when they see her, they seem to feel anxiety rather than relief.

It’s an odd reaction, but their response — tinged with the greasy shadow of dread just beneath the surface — starts to make sense as the narrative continues. Like an expert player moving chess pieces across a board, Healey meticulously unravels the backstory.

Soon, readers learn that Lana has tried to take her life several times, and that she talks about wanting to die in the way other teenagers might discuss wanting to go to the movies. The holiday from which Lana went missing was meant to be a reprieve, a chance to return to normalcy after several months of intense therapy — a chance for mother and daughter to reconnect as family instead of as guard and prisoner, a dynamic they developed after Jen caught her crying daughter about to swallow a handful of pills.

The fear, one that Jen perhaps feels more deeply than her somewhat laidback husband, is that Lana meant to run away, to vanish from the world. Here begins an unusual cat-and-mouse game, where a desperate mother tries to cautiously pull answers from a daughter who is angry, sullen, and reluctant to provide insight. Each time Jen asks what happened during the period Lana was lost, her daughter replies with some variation of “nothing.”

While the focus of the novel is Lana, Healey also makes readers suspicious of its unreliable narrator, Jen. Lana may be unstable, but readers are subtly reminded to question concepts like “sanity” as Jen teeters on the brink of madness herself. The shock and stress of living with a suicidal, self-mutilating daughter bends Jen’s mind into an ever-darker state.

At times, Jen is not certain what is real. One night, unable to sleep, she walks downstairs to find a stray cat. Bewildered, but desperate for comfort, she cuddles up next to it and falls asleep. The next morning, it disappears. The cat becomes a ghost to Jen, so much so that she’s unsure if the animal exists, or if she conjured it from a picture she saw with Lana on Instagram.

How does a reader trust someone who cannot trust herself? That is the central question of this novel. The writing will make readers feel like everyone is a little insane, no matter how “normal” they appear.

The narrative, too, gives the disrupting impression that one is reading a sort of diary rather than a book. While the plot flows more or less like a conventional novel, it is broken up into small vignettes. In some cases, these pieces, not quite chapters, aren’t part of the narrative but are linked inexorably to it: a snippet of a play Lana wrote as a child, a poem written by Jen, a letter from Hugh, etc.

This compartmentalization creates a unique style mimicking the fickle way memory works. At the beginning of the novel, Jen claims that “time was unsettled in her memory.” The whole narrative feels this way: unsettled, as if readers may lose their grip on the story if they don’t hold on tight enough. As with memory, certain events, certain words, and certain moments in time stand out vividly, while other parts of life rush past.

Healey’s skill as a writer is laudable for the way she manipulates the English language so that words and the meanings attached to them suddenly become slippery. “Supermum” becomes a nasty joke in Jen’s mind, for she sees herself as a failure. When Lana’s therapist calls Jen “mum,” his use of the term makes her bristle.

Furthermore, Healey shows how words hold an odd magic, sometimes a sinister power. Her only failing, slight though it is, lies in her repetitive use of tree imagery throughout the novel. That stumble notwithstanding, Whistle in the Dark is not to be missed.    

Fatima Taha is working on her Ph.D. in comparative literature at the University of Maryland while also teaching English writing and literature. She resides in Maryland, where she is working on her novel. She loves words almost as much as chocolate pastries.

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