2nd May 2012
What They Do in the Dark by Amanda Coe
Reviews of this novel have applied adjectives such ‘dark’ and ‘gritty’ to describe Coe’s tale of two young girls in 1970s Yorkshire, but as I read on I found myself looking to much more severe synonyms to articulate just how harrowing this story is.
Gemma Barlow is a relatively spoiled child from an average family. Her life is a privileged one of pocket money, outings with friends and a borderline obsession with fictional TV child star, Lallie Paluza.
On the surface Gemma has nothing in common with Pauline Bright, an aggressive, unstable girl from Gemma’s class who comes from a big family living in extreme poverty. Pauline’s mother is absent for months at a time working as a prostitute on the streets of Leeds, and when she is home Pauline strives for her approval through a tirade of mental and physical abuse.
Gemma and Pauline strike up a disturbing friendship, and when Gemma’s parents separate and she is moved across town to live with her mother’s new boyfriend Ian, Gemma finds herself in an extremely vulnerable situation.
With no one looking out for her and streetwise beyond her years, Pauline also becomes vulnerable to a society filled with predatory men.
A film crew arrives in town to produce a movie at the girls’ school, with Lallie Paluza in a leading role. The film production becomes a subplot, told from the perspectives of the producer, Quentin, and a gossipy, ageing actress called Vera.
This provides some relief from Gemma and Pauline’s relentless misery, although there is perhaps a bit too much of this subplot given that the two stories don’t intertwine as much as you expect them to.
Lallie remains frustratingly marginalised throughout the book when her role initially seems quite significant. This is undoubtedly intentional, though, as it mirrors her mother’s dominance perfectly.
But even with the light relief of the film set, there is no denying that this is an extremely disturbing story. Coe does not spare us the details of poverty and sickening abuse, and there were scenes that made me question whether the main aim was to solely shock and provoke.
Looking past the controversy, this novel is flawlessly written and expertly plotted due to Coe’s screenwriting background. The description is detailed and evocative and there isn’t one page that drags or passes by too quickly.
The loss of innocence is reflected in the narration; the first chapters are written in a simplistic, child-like way and by the end it is frantic and complex.
It has been noted that Coe’s writing evokes clearly what is what like to grow up in North England in the 70s, making reference to the nostalgic (Saturday night television) and the regrettable (casual racism).
The cover of this book generates a lot of hype about the ending, and it’s to Coe’s credit that she does not give you the ending you want it to be, or the ending you expect it to be. This novel really does have a shock ending, and it’s even more unpleasant than everything that has come before.
Coe has explained that she wanted to make reference to what she refers to as a misogynistic violence that hung over society at that time, particularly with reference to the Yorkshire Ripper.
She is also critical of the fact that modern culture allows events such as murder to feature as part of light entertainment, and wanted to portray the harsh realities for once. I think it’s safe to say she was successful in this.
I can honestly say that if I’d been reading this book for pleasure I would not have got to the end of it. At some points I wasn’t even sure that I could read on in order to review it, such was my discomfort at some of the more graphic child abuse scenes.
My professionalism was tested but I did finish it, and thankfully the cruelty, sex and violence became more sporadic. I imagined that Coe would go on to describe all the abuse encountered by Gemma and Pauline, but after a while the novel relies on hints and subtleties to inform the reader that the abuse is still ongoing.
The ending, as I’ve mentioned, is horrific and disturbing. I read the whole scene with a grimace on face, flinching as if watching it played out on screen (a tribute to Coe’s screenwriting talents, I think), but again, Coe doesn’t go as far as she could with the description and detail, and the scene is mindfully brief.
What They Do in the Dark is masterfully crafted, and I don’t think anyone without Coe’s experience could have carried it out, so delicate is the line between shying away from grim realities and using graphic sexual violence purely to shock.
My system for rating books relies on whether on not I would revisit the novel again, and this book puts me in a very difficult situation. The problem is that there is no way in hell I’d read this book again, but not because it’s bad, because really it’s just too damn good at portraying childhood innocence lost. I don’t want to fill my brain with images of child abuse that I can’t unsee, and for me that’s true whether it’s on television or in a book.
Recommended For: People who are not easily disturbed.