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What They Do in the Dark is a story about childhood in the 1970s, and opens with a chapter evoking 1970s nostalgia. Gemma describes her regular Saturday routine, going swimming with her friend, then buying comics and sweets in the shop, before going home to watch her favourite telly programme, It's Lallie. Lallie is just 11, one year older than Gemma, and in the programme is on her own with servants in a mansion, enviably free from adult controls over what she does.
Pauline is dirty and smelly, from a poor underclass family. No one wants to be her friend, certainly not Gemma. She is very keen though to talk to Gemma, and Gemma finds herself inexorably drawn towards Pauline's ideas. Then there is an announcement - the school premises are to be used as a film set, and Lallie Paluza, Gemma's idol, is the star of the film. There are to be opportunities for extras.
Gemma and Pauline's story is interwoven with the story of Lallie, mainly told from the viewpoint of her horrible, pushy mother.
The worlds of these three young girls seem very far apart, and certainly Gemma can't see that she might have anything in common with Pauline. In fact, as I continued reading I was increasingly disturbed, as I realised the level of neglect that all three girls are suffering, that all three have mothers whose focus is on something other than their needs and feelings. Gemma describes herself as spoilt, but perhaps she is being given cash rather than attention.
I can't say that I enjoyed reading this novel. I thought it was well written and artfully constructed, but it was an increasingly uncomfortable experience. None of the main characters are likeable. Gemma is selfish and shallow, Pauline is damaged and manipulative, and on the first page of the story is a newspaper obituary for a 35 year old Lallie, who never enjoyed the success as an adult that she did as a child. Pauline's mum is a sex worker, Lallie's mum is a nightmare, Gemma's mum is absorbed by the breakup of her marriage and a new relationship.
On the back cover, the story promises something more sinister under the nostalgia, and a shocking ending. I was duly shocked, but the clues leading up to it are there from the start.
Amanda Coe is a successful writer for TV, with credits including Shameless. This story lacks the humour that is part of some of her best known TV work, though. I could see much of it being successfully adapted as a TV drama, but I am not sure how the denouement would be shown on screen. This is her second book but her first novel (A Whore in the Kitchen is a collection of short stories).
I would probably rate this about 3.5, as it's well done but rather too creepy to like.
This review first appeared at www.curiousbookfans.co.uk
The book is a trade paperback from Virago, published in July 2011, RRP £12.99, Amazon £7.79 in paperback and £5.99 in Kindle format, as of December 2011.