In Whistle in the Dark, Healey shifts points of view, but it is the interior monologue of Jen, Healey's chief protagonist, which brings authenticity and depth to the mother/daughter relationship that permeates much of the book. Healey strikes a clear balance with present events and the aftermath of "a painting holiday" at the Peak District during which Jen's daughter Lana suddenly goes missing. Was it an accident? Did Lana go off deliberately? Lana continues to have no memory of what happened. Jen wants to shake her daughter and demand an explanation, but Lana is still hospitalized for dehydration. She also has cuts and bruises but has said no to a forensic examination.
A desperate rage runs through Jen "like a wick," an unfocused and physical anger. Returning to London with her husband, Hugh, Jen cannot predict whether Lana will make yet another halfhearted attempt at her life. The only other witness was Stephen, a watercolorist in his mid-40s who was attending the holiday as part of the training for the ministry of some obscure Christian sect. Jen can't bring herself to dislike Stephen. Then there is the witness statement of Matthew, the son of the holiday-center manager, who can offer little to solve the puzzle.
For Lana, however, the holiday is perhaps a study in keeping her mother at arm's length "just to get away from her." Jen's been expecting more of a battle. She feels some echo of her daughter's pain run through her own limbs. In desperation, she decides to discover the truth, believing that Lana meant to do something terrible to herself. She wasn't telling Jen everything she could, was hiding something. Beyond the cool breeze, the curlews smell of cut grass as Jen turns to her secretive older daughter, Meg, and to Hugh, who tells Jen that after everything they've been through with Lana--the fear, guilt and excruciating therapy sessions--"then the worst happened and we thought we'd lost her." As the true nature of Jen and Lana's relationship emerges, gradually, we see that no detail is left unsaid. She's terrified Lana will sneak away again and that they will restart the cycle--the shock and despair, suspicion and relief.
The truth proves to be far more elusive. As Lana's wounds stay invisible, Jen begins to recall the old things, the familiar things: her younger daughter's huddled pose, the long, exasperated blink, the marks on her arms, both the old ones and the fresh ones reflected in "the light aniseed smell of her sweat." As the days and weeks go by and Lana remains tight-lipped about the incident, Jen worries that her daughter will sneak away again and they will have to restart the cycle. Just when Jen is beginning to feel that she knows Lana again, she tells us that she "doesn't really know her daughter at all."
When the investigators find two condoms and blood that they assume have nothing to do with Lana's case ("nothing in fact gave us any cause for alarm; your daughter says there's no crime"), Jen travels back to the Peak District in a desperate attempt to retrace her daughter's footsteps. Throughout, Jen's emotions hang "about in the air." Irritation and exhaustion, maybe even despair linger "like a cloud of perfume," waiting to be walked through.
By the conclusion of Whistle in the Dark, we have clear insight into Jen's motivations and her complex, often fraught relationship with Lana (and also with Hugh and Meg), not to mention an understanding of Jen's particular moral perspective. That the desolate beauty of the Peak District is contrasted with the hustle and bustle of London comes as no surprise. The lasting impact of the novel is Healey's mother-daughter reckoning as Jen and Lana fumble for lucidity, within themselves and with each other.