Jen Maddox and her fifteen year-old daughter, Lana, book a week in the country where they hope to paint, go on long walks, and, most of all, indulge in some mother-daughter bonding. The last two years have been stressful for Jen, who worries about the mental health of Lana. Because Hugh needed the family car, Jen and Lana travel by train. While they are waiting on the platform, Lana says the words Jen has come to dread: “I want to kill myself.”
The outing gets off to a rough start when Lana discovers she’s the youngest person there by 30 years. But Jen is encouraged when Lana enthusiastically jumps into activities. Then Lana goes missing. After four days, Lana turns up, bloody and bruised. Jen and Hugh sit by her hospital bed, hoping that when she awakes they will discover what happened. Lana, however, refuses to provide her parents with any information. While Jen is elated that her daughter has returned, she can’t refrain from probing. Her questions, however, widen the gap between mother and daughter.
Emma Healey’s Whistle in the Dark is a twist on the traditional mystery. Lana is no longer missing, what’s unknown is what transpired during those four days when she was missing. Jen frequently comes across as annoying in her constant vigilance and questions. At the same time, Lana plays the petulant teen, unwilling, or perhaps unable, to accept her mother’s offers to help.
Some of the tension is relieved by the Maddox’s older daughter, Meg, who is pregnant but whose partner, another woman, has left her. It’s indicative of Jen’s state of mind that even becoming a grandmother takes a back seat to her concern over Lana’s welfare. Meg is able to talk with her sister, but not about anything that really counts.
Healey’s debut novel, Elizabeth Is Missing, received rave reviews, was an international bestseller, and is being adapted for TV. The reception for Whistle in the Dark has been slightly less enthusiastic, perhaps because of the storyline. But I found it hard to put down. Healey’s beautiful writing is a marvel. And the way she examines a complex mother-daughter relationship will resonate with parents. Teens are tough and sometimes love means pushing for answers even when a child is pushing away. Jen understands what’s at stake and is strong enough to face the danger in order to save Lana.
Whistle in the Dark
Top photo: Emma Healey