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Aliya Whiteley’s second novel with the Macmillan New Writing imprint Light Reading is, well, different. Whiteley treats us to the new millennium’s British "Thelma and Louise"; in this case Pru and Lena who are both wives of RAF officers and decide one day to take off for escape and some adventure. This is not the novel equivalent of a road movie, more a walk along the prom in the out of season, uninviting and sinister-feeling seaside resort of Allcombe. Where Allcombe harbours a lot of secrets, so do our duo Pru and Lena…
In a nutshell: Pru, Lena and other wives on the base are shocked by the suicide of new mother, Yvonne Fairly, who is found lying on her prized dining table in her wedding dress, having taken an overdose. Pru steals her suicide note which confirms what all the wives secretly knew and what Yvonne discovered late in the day: that her husband was having an affair with Lena’s in the desert. And so we start to learn of the pair’s own secrets. Later, Pru reveals to Lena that she has collected suicide notes for years. Why does Pru collect suicide notes? When Lena discovers that Pru has the suicide note of one Crystal Tynee, former child star, who died in Allcombe, both are suddenly compelled to take off and investigate the possibility that Crystal may not have committed suicide but was murdered. What are their real reasons for the diversion to Allcombe and what secrets are they harbouring between them and from one another?
Pru and Lena are best friends but make an uneasy alliance, always sniping at one another to maintain their outer protective shells. They both have unusual or odd marriage circumstances. Their visit to Allcombe becomes the turning point in both their lives.
It’s the wanting to know the "why", or the answers to the many "whys" that keep the pages turning. And Allcombe quickly renders up some secrets, so the truth has to be known in the end. And it comes, but not without a few red herrings and some wrong footing that leads to a surprising, perhaps shocking end with "the truth will out".
There is humour in this novel and much of it is dark. MNW’s publicity stated that Light Reading "is a compelling and unputdownable novel – full of grotesque humour". I’ll go with the former but for the latter I believe that the synopsis on Amazon has found the right key: "Light Reading is a wickedly clever detective story and a pitch-black mystery, seething with grotesque and unforgettable characters…" I found some of the characters grotesque, but not the humour. (Perhaps I’m already too weathered in the extremes of this?) Here’s a sample of the writing that had me laughing out loud:
"Is life really just about what you can put inside you? Is there nothing more than the pleasure of a steak, a fag, a fuck? Because it occurs to me that nothing and nobody has ever managed to plug even one of my holes to my satisfaction."
This is a mystery with the formal police investigations an aside and minute part. This is all about the lives of Lena and Pru, and Crystal Tynee. A car does not drop off the cliff in the end and neither does our pair trip off the promenade. But these two strong characters reach a point in their lives where all hell breaks loose and you simply have to read on to find out the answers to the "whys" and seek the resolution. Go on, that’s much more than Thelma and Louise accelerating towards the cliff end, isn’t it? We could anticipate the outcome there, but with Light Reading you need to read the final pages to be enlightened.