This review was published back in Black Static #3, exactly as it appears here except for any editorial changes/corrections.
LIGHT READING BY ALIYA WHITELEY
(Macmillan New Writing hardback, 304pp, £14.99)
Pru and Lena are RAF wives, consigned to the usual round of coffee mornings and gossip while their husbands are away at war, but the suicide of one of their fellow inmates when she discovers that her husband is having an affair with Lena’s changes all that. Lena learns her friend’s secret hobby; Pru collects suicide notes. The pride of her collection is that of former child star Crystal Tynee, the single word “Fripl”. On a whim the two women decide to investigate and see if they can uncover the meaning of this cryptic final communication. The trail leads them to Allcombe, where menacing teenagers prowl the streets and Crystal’s mother lives alone and in fear. While everything may be fine and dandy in the woodshed, there’s evidence of sinister goings on at the local old people’s home, and Pru and Lena just may have bit off more than they can possibly chew.
Whiteley knows her onions. She gives the reader an intriguing mystery to cut his or her teeth on, remorselessly piling the details on top of each other, adding a smidgen of sex to flavour and a soupcon of violence to create tension, and then she pulls an ending out of left field that is as unexpected as it is right, and if you want to approach the book on that level, then chances are you won’t be disappointed. Regardless, Light Reading is not a mystery story any more than Thelma and Louise was a road movie, and never mind how much vehicular mayhem filled up the screen. If you need a crime genre tag to slip on its toe, then a fitter comparison would be the black comedies of Carl Hiaasen, transposed from sunny Florida to the environs of a rundown English seaside town in the off season (and Pru with her suicide note collection is just the sort of oddball who would appeal to Hiaasen, though she’d need to lose weight and have breast implants).
The title is ironic. Whiteley’s prose is elegant certainly and insinuates itself into the reader’s consciousness with a deceptive ease and lightness of touch, but her subject matter is grim, giving rise to a pitch black comedy that keeps the reader continually on edge. The deprecating tone of voice throughout – the acerbic humour with which Pru responds to the dullness of her life, the mocking eye that Lena casts over herself and others – is beguiling, even when it describes things we would rather not know about, such as unhappiness, old age and death. The things that are said, the crisp observations and witty rejoinders, are a constant source of delight, but often we laugh as an alternative to crying, humour as the antidote to despair at all the missed opportunities and small tragedies that fill the page and these people’s lives.
Character is central. Specifically, the friendship between Pru and Lena is what drives the book, an attraction of opposites. Pru is rather frumpy, overweight and not really concerned with other people’s feelings, pushing them away so that she can nurse the secrets of her past in solitary. Lena is the more outgoing, sexually frustrated and looking for love in all the wrong places, wanting to open up her life but unsure how. They really have nothing in common except mutual disdain for the other wives and throughout the book they dance round each other, seeking a moment of shared honesty but scared of the consequences. The real impetus of the book is not in finding out what happened to Crystal Tynee, but discovering what will happen with Pru and Lena. The rest is window dressing. Fripl, in fact. Recommended.