Saturday, 24 March 2012

Book review: What They Do in the Dark by Amanda Coe

What They Do in the Dark (2011) by Amanda Coe

Screenwriter Amanda Coe's debut novel is about three young girls in mid-1970s Yorkshire. Gemma is middle-class, relatively spoilt, a quintessential good girl. Pauline is working-class, the daughter of a prostitute, neglected and living in squalor. The third, Eulalia 'Lallie' Paluza, is not so much a character as a plot device: a precocious child star, whom Gemma worships, Lallie comes to the other girls' town to film a movie, sparking a chain of events that affects everyone in the story. Coe's narrative takes turns between Gemma's viewpoint (first person), Pauline's viewpoint (third person), and a few adult characters including Vera, an actress working on the film, and Quentin, a heavily drug-dependent producer from the US.

As the story progresses, cracks open up. Both of the girls are, in very different ways, being abused and exploited by the adults around them. These developments are conveyed with wonderful subtlety and realism, and the various voices and perspectives are pitch-perfect. I thoroughly enjoyed Coe's writing throughout the book - it's filled with innovative metaphors and turns of phrase, and the language works so well for its setting and context.

And then, in the final chapter, the plot veers in a completely different direction from anything that's come before. It's quite difficult for me to go into any detail here without ruining the book for anyone who might be planning to read it, but none of the existing threads of the plot are satisfactorily concluded - instead, the climax involves Gemma and Pauline being involved in an incident that is both shocking and inexplicable. I have to admit that I struggled to understand why the author had taken the story in this direction, and why she felt it was necessary. I got that it was subversive, but past that, I was unsure of the meaning - a parable about how the cruelly treated transfer their own suffering to weaker victims? A comment on classism, on how the reader (like the adult characters in the book) may judge the two girls differently because of their contrasting backgrounds? An indication that at least one of the characters is a wholly unreliable narrator? Is it, in the end, about what the story doesn't tell us, the things hidden between the lines, the unspoken ways in which the girls punish others for the horrible things they're going through? Or all of the above?

Aside from the ending, my other complaint about What They Do in the Dark was that I wasn't sure what Quentin's viewpoint added to the story. I must admit I found it hard to follow what was actually going on in her chapters. Despite my reservations about both this and the ending, however, I thought this was an excellent first novel, so beautifully constructed and written; it's just a shame it had to push so far into shocking territory to the extent that the climax seemed bizarre (though thought-provoking all the same). If anyone else has read it, I'd be interested to know how you felt about the ending and what conclusions you thought were supposed to be drawn from it.

Rating: 8/10

Edited to add: I've been getting a lot of search referrals from people looking for details of what actually happens at the end of this book, so here's a link to my Goodreads review, in which I write more about the details (under spoiler tags, of course!)

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