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Macmillan hardcover £14.99
review by David Hebblethwaite
There was a time, after I'd read a couple of her stories, when I had Aliya Whiteley pegged as a fantasy writer. So I was wrong-footed when she released Three Things About Me, a novel about call centre workers; sure, it was a pretty offbeat novel about call centre workers, but it wasn't fantasy by any means. Now, I realise, Whiteley isn't the kind of writer whose work can be classified as anything so easily - unless, perhaps, you classify it as being meant to wrong-foot the reader, because her second novel, Light Reading, is surely going to do that.
Prudence Green and Lena Patten are best friends, brought together by their marriages to officers in the Royal Air Force. Their husbands are currently away on duty, and the two women are dissatisfied with their lives back home on the base. Excitement of sorts arrives in December 2004, when Pru finds one of the other RAF wives hanging, because her husband is having an affair - with Lena's husband.
At which point, it may appear that Light Reading is going to be a run-of-the-mill potboiler about couples in crisis; but it's not so - Pru, you see, collects suicide notes, one of which, bearing simply the nonsense word 'Fripl', was written by the young television personality Crystal Tynee. Intrigued, Pru and Lena travel to the dismal seaside town of Allcombe to investigate the circumstances around Crystal's death; they discover there is more going on than meets the eye.
At which point, it may appear that Light Reading is going to be just another cosy detective story with a pair of quirky amateur sleuths; but - as you will by now have guessed - it's not so. Cosy, the book is not: Allcombe is hardly the most welcoming place ("..when we walked down the stone steps, through the low oak door and into the main bar, everyone turned simultaneously and stared at us. I could have sworn that they were all on automatic timer"); and Pru and Lena (not the world's most competent investigators, it must be said) often find themselves in awkward, even dangerous, situations.
The book is a detective story - but the mystery isn't the main point. Which is not to say that the reasons for Crystal's death aren't revealed; but Whiteley does make plain that you (and her characters) can't expect to have everything tied up neatly, because life isn't like that. What really matters in Light Reading (a title, incidentally, that only truly makes sense when you reach the last page) is the characterisation, particularly that of Pru and Lena.
One of the most striking things initially is just how much there is that the two friends don't know about each other. It's not only knowledge of each other's lives (though there are gaps in that: for example, something happened to Pru when she was 17 that she refuses to tell Lena; and Pru doesn't know that Lena wants to be a psychiatrist), but also knowledge of their personalities; the book is narrated by both in the first person (mostly Pru, with some extracts from Lena's diary), and the character revealed by one doesn't always match the other's impression of her. Both women ruminate on the nature of their relationships; and, by novel's end, they have reached a point that leaves them (and the reader) wondering how they got there, when everything flowed so naturally from who they were and what was happening. It's fascinating to watch them grow and change over the course of the book.
There's plenty here to enjoy, then. So why do I still have a nagging feeling of dissatisfaction? It's the same feeling I had after reading Three Things About Me - that it was good, but could have been better if only it had... Well, for one thing, I did not find the book to be as off-kilter as the publicity material suggests. Whoever wrote in the blurb that Light Reading is "seething with grotesque and unforgettable characters" is guilty of overstatement; yes, some of its characters have their quirks, but I would describe the likes of The Vicar Of Dibley and The League Of Gentlemen as 'seething with grotesques', and Light Reading isn't like that. Nor did I find Allcombe to be particularly odd or 'sinister'; miserable, yes, as one might expect a seaside town out-of-season to be - but I did wish for it to be that bit weirder (though I did enjoy the scenes in the town's police station, with its homely sergeant).
As for the mystery element, its main shortcoming is not the loose ends (which are fair enough), but the fact that the solution given is told to the characters rather than being deduced by them - and that's never going to be as satisfying, whatever the intention. And the characterisation: earlier, I mentioned 'watching' the protagonists develop, and it can feel more like observing them do so than experiencing it - or, at least, I tended to think about it after reading than noticing it at the time. Still, Light Reading zips along too quickly for such things to matter too much, and is certainly worth a read, especially if you're in search of something a bit different.
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