Whistle in the Dark, by Emma Healey

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I’ve just finished Emma Healey’s highly anticipated (by me) Whistle in the Dark. I adored Elizabeth is Missing and was eager to see if her next book was going to be as sharp and clever as I found her debut to be. Unfortunately, I have to chalk this one up to another disappointing experience, another one joining the too long list of highly anticipated reads that are falling far short for me. Am I being too tough? Am I expecting too much?

Much of the time while reading Whistle in the Dark, I was wondering when the other shoe was going to drop. There is a lot of buildup to where I wondered if we’re going to find out that Jen, the mother, was an unreliable narrator,  because it felt like it was going to become that kind of story. Overall, I  didn’t find it as original or clever as the wonderful Elizabeth is Missing.

Jen and her daughter Lana, have gone on a painting holiday. This is on effort by Jen to find a way back to her daughter – Lana has always been a difficult teenager – suffering from depression, often self harming and in therapy after attempts at suicide. While on their vacation, Lana disappears and is found four days later with a head wound, what looks to be ligature marks around her ankles (of which she says were from her socks), cuts and bruises and she is soaking wet but will only ever say she doesn’t remember anything, that she just got lost.

Jen spends much of her time trying to find out the answers to the many questions she has about Lana’s disappearance. She is searching her Instagram and Facebook looking for clues, listening in on her phone conversations, looking through her internet search history. She sits in on her therapy sessions, but Lana will only continue to say she does not remember what happened and that she got lost.

There are also many mentions about Jen not having a reliable memory, or that she imagines things happening that really have not – this ranges from thinking she’s seen people, or hearing something that was said, imagining events, appointments, etc. All of which did not happen, or weren’t said. This is mentioned casually in ways so it’s setting the reader up to question if she reliable or not? Is she the one being manipulated by her daughter or is she the one manipulating Lana?

It spins around and around from Lana’s firm denial of not remembering what happened, not being able to answer if someone kidnapped her, did someone harm her, where was she? Everything is answered with a curt, I don’t remember and I just got lost and never moving forward from that point.

So there is mounting frustration since Lana isn’t deviating from her story, and Jen continues to spin her wheels reading into Instagram and Facebook posts. But by this time, the reader is very clear on these points. It was made clear 50 pages ago and continued on for another 50 pages- what’s next? What will propel this story, what is going to grip me on what I’m expecting to be a ride – so far it’s been a leisurely cycle ride. It hasn’t been disorienting (like Girl on the Train), the story hasn’t pulled the rug out and done a 180° (like Gone Girl) so what’s its catch? Are we going to continue to read about Lana’s angry and suicidal past and more on Jen’s thinking she’s seeing cats in the kitchen? How many more times will this be told to us?

More repeated text is how Jen is wanting to get along better with Lana, after all, this was the reason she booked their painting holiday:

“This was something else her memory had left out. And just at this moment when they were getting along, when she was beginning to feel she knew her daughter again, she had set them both up for disappointment and proved she didn’t know her at all. Her confidence left, her feeling of competence, and when Lana popped upstairs to the loo, Jen let herself slide on to the floor.” 

So do you see how I was waiting for this other shoe to drop? Now I was really frustrated on how this wasn’t very original, it was feeling like something that has been read many times before – is the reader supposed to expect a switch in the story soon? If so, it was taking too long in coming.

I think I was getting myself worked up with how frustrated I was becoming – I almost skimmed and bailed on it. I was determined though for this not to happen to another one! I just couldn’t have another failed reading experience could I, especially with another one so highly anticipated.

The ending does pull it together (finally) and it wasn’t necessarily the ending expected, and it also felt very anti-climatic for me. That ending wasn’t enough to pull me over my feelings of disappointment. I also kept thinking of Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller while reading. There was something about it that felt similar to me. I enjoyed Swimming Lessons more over Whistle in the Dark however – there was a cleverness there that gave off a slow burn long after finishing.

I’m still searching for that knockout read my friends!