Sunday 20 October 2019

Devastation of a daughter's disappearance

Fiction: Whistle In The Dark, Emma Healey, Viking, €14.99

Emma Healey 'perfectly captures the difficulty of parenting teenagers'
Emma Healey 'perfectly captures the difficulty of parenting teenagers'

Justine Carbery

Troubled teen Lana, who has a history of self-harm and suicidal thoughts, is holidaying with her mother in the Peak District for a few days, when she inexplicably disappears.

A typical middle-aged, middle-class mother, Jen had been really looking forward to this break, desperate to reconnect with her prickly daughter, hoping for a 'week in the country at the end of May, a week for walking and art, for self-improv ement and possibly some mother-daughter bonding after the last two years of conflict. Time together without social workers and doctors and psychiatrists.'

And they were having a lovely time. Until the unthinkable happens. Lana goes missing.

Frantic with worry, Jen and her husband Hugh are initially relieved when, four days later, she is found by a farmer in a field, alive and relatively unharmed. Dehydrated, disorientated and cold, Lana appears to have no memory of where she has been or what happened to her.

A bloody gash on her head, blood-soaked clothes and strange markings on her ankles cause her parents to panic as does Lana's refusal to allow a rape test.

Jen unleashes a barrage of questions about her whereabouts for those four 'missing' days, only to be met with an initial weariness, then an increasingly defiant 'I don't know' from her traumatised daughter.

Understandably, Jen is freaking out, wondering why her daughter remains tight-lipped about what happened in those four lost days, or what she is hiding, while Hugh focuses on the good news that Lana has been returned to them alive and relatively well.

Released from hospital into her parent's care, Lana retreats to her bedroom. She begins acting strangely: making secretive phone calls, hiding books under her bed, sleeping with the light on, all of which makes Jen paranoid.

Plagued by self-doubt and questioning her competence as a mother, Jen trawls through Lana's social media accounts, obsessed with filling in the gaps of her daughter's disappearance, stalking her on Facebook and listening in on her phone conversations.

She even follows her daughter to school, questioning her friends, trying everything to get to the bottom of the mystery.

This understandably raises the tension between mother and daughter, with Dad trying to act honest broker between the two.

The elder sister Meg enters the fray, chiding her mother for constantly giving in to Lana, thus enabling her truculent behaviour.

Many will relate to the fraught familial relationships, which are expertly realised in this tense contemporary novel. Jen's fear and frustration are so plausible, Lana's depression so authentic, the interactions so utterly real that you get completely drawn into their world.

Healey perfectly captures the difficulty of parenting teenagers in this social media-ridden world. It touches our deepest fears and insecurities and the topics raised would probably engender heated discussions at any book club. I surmise that there are many parents out there struggling with similar issues, who would identify with the dilemmas and tensions presented in this tale.

Those looking for a 'gripping thriller' may find the plot a bit of a slow burn, with the novel focusing almost entirely on the aftermath of Lana's disappearance, and the psychological effects of teenage depression. However, tension really builds in the last few chapters, culminating in a claustrophobic ending.

Whistle In The Dark is a raw, difficult read at times, as we witness how Lana's mental illness wreaks havoc on those closest to her. But Healey writes with such an ease and naturalness that it carries you effortlessly forward.

This novel, like her hugely successful debut Elizabeth is Missing, is bound to appeal to a wide audience. I highly recommend it.

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