Author Emma Healey discusses her new novel Whistle in the Dark

Emma Healey photographed at the University of East Anglia (photo: Charlotte Emily Gray)

Emma Healey photographed at the University of East Anglia (photo: Charlotte Emily Gray) - Credit: Archant

Her first novel was an international bestseller, now Emma Healey has another book out and it transforms a mother’s tense relationship with her teenage daughter into a must-read mystery

Emma Healey talking about Elizabeth is Missing at Poringland Library (photo: Simon Finlay)

Emma Healey talking about Elizabeth is Missing at Poringland Library (photo: Simon Finlay) - Credit: SIMON FINLAY

Lana is missing for four days. When she returns her family is, at first, delighted. But where has she been? Why is she bruised and bleeding and afraid of the dark?

Norwich novelist Emma Healey is not afraid of tackling difficult subjects. Her first book, Elizabeth is Missing, was told from the point of view of a personality ravaged and fragmented by dementia. It has sold more than a million copies around the world, won the Costa first novel award and is being made into a BBC series. Her second novel, Whistle in the Dark, is narrated by Jen, the mother of a suicidal 15-year-old.

When Emma herself was 15 she wanted to die.

Whistle in the Dark, by Emma Healey (Penguin)

Whistle in the Dark, by Emma Healey (Penguin) - Credit: Penguin

As the pressures of a fractured friendship and looming exams became too much, she no longer wanted to be alive. She dropped out of school and did little more than read romantic fiction for a year until she had recovered enough to begin a degree in bookbinding and eventually an MA in creative writing at the University of East Anglia.

Darkness is all around her second novel, but it is not a dark book.

The text is cut into short chapters, pulling the reader onwards through the mystery, deeper and deeper into the minds of her characters and along all the possible pathways of the plot.

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“I wanted to add to Jen’s paranoia. I wanted to keep the reader guessing,” said Emma.

Was Lana kidnapped, brainwashed, lost, deliberately hiding? Layers of fairytales and legends lurk just beneath the everyday realism, intruding into a 21st century family life of laptops, shopping trips, careers, school, housework and meals, and ramping up the paranoia of a mother trying to discover the cause of her daughter’s depression, disappearance and rediscovery.

As Jen searches for answers she begins seeing every event as symbolic, every character as sinister. A cat which may or may not be there, or alive, slinks in and out of the family home; the boundaries between science and myth, contemporary life and ancient wisdom become blurred. A simple scene of a teenager picking at pomegranate seeds in a London kitchen resonates with ancient fables of seasons, harvests, an underworld.

At the heart of it all is a tense, yet tender, mother-daughter relationship. The story of Whistle in the Dark began when a woman went missing for 17 days in Australia. Emma was fascinated by the speculation which followed her reappearance.

“I’m really obsessed with motive,” said Emma. “I had written the first third of one book, then the first third of another, and was getting to the point where I would have to pay an advance back.”

Then she found herself transforming the mystery of a real-life disappearance into a novel exploring family life, depression and beliefs.

“I went through a period of teenage depression and I thought maybe I could start to talk about that. I had been avoiding it.

“At 15 I was in a friendship of three years that really fell apart. And there was the pressure of exams. I was exhausted. I didn’t want to engage with the rest of the world because I was so overwhelmed, so tired.”

Her research included a day caving in the Peak District. “It’s just exhausting, and scary. You feel terrified the whole time,” said Emma.

“There is no light so you can’t tell how long anything is lasting and you are wet all the time. There are no sounds of life. Afterwards we were just marvelling at the sunlight and the green fields, the sheep, the rabbits.”

Although depression is a central theme, the book sparkles with humour, compelling characters and a fast-paced plot.

Dedicated to Emma’s mother, the scenes between mother and daughter are particularly sharp, witty and a beautifully-observed mix of affection and irritation.

Emma became a mother herself while finishing the novel. Baby Cora was born last summer. It was a busy year. Emma, now 33, and Andy married in Norwich and held their wedding reception where they first met as colleagues in Waterstones bookshop in the Royal Arcade, now a Jamies’ restaurant.

Emma finished editing Whistle in the Dark that autumn, often in Norwich cafés while Andy looked after Cora.

They live close to the city centre and adore their adopted home city. After a difficult birth, with Cora spending her first few days in special care, they brought her back to their new home just in time for a summer street party.

“It’s so easy to live here,” said Emma. “It’s just lovely. I feel like Norwich seems to breed happy people.

“There’s a level of contentment that you don’t get in London. We have everything.”

Whistle in the Dark by Emma Healey by Penguin Random House is out now in hardback for £12.99

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