Review: Whistle in the Dark

The first time I read Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” I was thrilled to my core. Over a decade later, I still remember the tremble of fascination and eeriness that delighted me as the narrator and I spiraled toward the dark conclusion. (If you’ve never read the story, follow the link and do so — it’s a quick read. And one that I consider required reading of like, everyone.)

I suppose the slow-moving paranoia and dedication to uncovering something (that may or may not exist) is what draws me in to Gilman’s work; and it is this same fascination with obsession and the potential for “craziness” that made Emma Healey’s latest novel, Whistle in the Dark, a compelling and spine-tingling read.

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Due out next Tuesday, July 24, from Harper Books, Whistle in the Dark is a slow-burning story about a mother and daughter. The book isn’t rife with action, and it isn’t a “thriller” in the trendy sense of the word, but I was captivated, and I was thrilled, by the time the novel met its end.

Synopsis: Jen Maddox has a pretty normal life: she’s mother to Meg, 26 years old and who’s just told her parents she’s pregnant; and Lana, 15 years old and the epitome of angsty teen. Her husband, Hugh, is a nice guy and the two of them exchange witty banter on a regular basis. “Normal” is the perfect adjective to describe the foursome — until, that is, Lana goes missing on a mother-daughter painting holiday and doesn’t resurface for four days . . . seemingly without a memory of where she was during that time, what happened, and who — if anyone — she was with. As Jen puzzles over the circumstances surrounding her youngest daughter’s disappearance (& recovery), readers learn that Lana has a history of suicidal ideations and depression. Jen is certain this disruption of their lives will lead Lana down a dark path, and frantically seeks to uncover the truth (no matter what the police or her husband think).

I will admit: the book wasn’t quite what I expected when I set out to read it. Based on the cover description, I thought Whistle in the Dark would be more of a fast-paced mystery/suspense novel in which a mother sets off on a journey to uncover the truth about her daughter’s disappearance. And in some ways, this is a fair description of the things that happen in the book; however, a majority of the book is actually devoted to the relationships between family members and Jen’s uncertainty — and resulting timidity — as a mother.

Here’s what I liked about it:

  • Jen’s character, though often frustrating, feels so true to life. While I was irked by her sometimes-passivity, I found her fearfulness of botching things with her tempestuous daughter to be very accurate.
  • The storyline trundles along slowly, but the details that Healey gives us in the family’s daily excursions and mealtimes and arguments feel like a breadcrumb trail that leads to something magnanimous.
  • Whistle in the Dark has just one perspective/POV to follow, and God bless it for that.
  • The prose is something else, my friends. It’s absolutely beautiful in its deliberate, thoughtful way, and I just wanted to write down all the damn phrases to store away somewhere safe, for looking at on rainy days. If ever there were a time to slow clap for an author’s writing style, this would be it.

Here’s what I didn’t love:

  • LANA. She drove me nuts (I feel you, Jen) and I was often repulsed by her behavior. That being said . . . I felt that she, too, was pretty well drawn for a teenager struggling with *not teen angst but real, actual depression*. So, while I hated her a lot, I also related to her, and felt the urge to text my mom several times and say Sorry for being such a difficult depressed shithead in high school. Oof.

Whistle in the Dark is a marvelously drawn, character-driven novel that creates this intimate portrait of a family dealing with the realities of chronic depression and the paranoia that (I assume) exists in parents of children who’ve attempted suicide. There’s an element of dark mystery lurking beneath the surface, as the book centers on the aftermath of Lana’s disappearance/return, and Healey’s ability to produce Jen’s anxiety in the reader (me!) was a truly surreal experience.

Overall: 4.5 stars. Read Whistle in the Dark if you’re okay with slow burns and moseying plots and enjoy a dark story with a payoff at the end.

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