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As part of my Arts Council England award, I am endeavouring to review novels written by authors living in either Devon, Cornwall or Somerset, or novels set in these counties. Light Reading is the first of these books that I’ve enjoyed enough to finish and review.
The blurb tells us that
“Prudence Green is a troubled woman. Stifled by her existence as an RAF wife, she’s dying for a bit of excitement. When one of the other women on the base commits suicide (having discovered that her husband is having an affair with a male comrade in Iraq), Pru and her best friend Lena are prompted to set off on a memorably surreal journey – a criminal investigation, a search for love and an exploration of Pru’s own dark past.
Which perhaps doesn’t sound a lot like ‘light reading’. From the cover image I was expecting a light-hearted comedy novel, so I was surprised to find myself confronted with some serious grit. Still, a seaside town in Devon, two RAF wives and a mysterious celebrity death sounded like an interesting recipe and I was certainly intrigued as to where this would all end up, particularly since I myself was once an RAF wife and I currently live in a small seaside town.
The book opens with a description of life on an RAF base. The boredom among the wives is pretty evident and the range of feelings regarding the RAF made me just a little bit nostalgic. There are those women who accept that detachments abroad are part and parcel of military life and there are those who feel bitterness towards an organisation responsible for taking a loved one so far from home and putting him in harm’s way. The book also touches on the resentment that can arise from a husband who adores the military lifestyle even though his wife abhors it. So far so accurate.
The detective story gets under way and Lena and Pru set off for Allcombe (a fictional town based on Ilfracombe) where they are to investigate the suicide of young TV star Crystal Tynee. They encounter po-faced locals, teenage thugs and a truly sinister care home owner (who still strikes fear into my heart). Somehow, however, the mystery element of the plot feels less important than the drama unfolding between the two friends.
Prudence and Lena make fascinating sleuths. Prudence is not a conventionally likeable character. She’s bitchy and mean-spirited and rarely has a good word to say about anyone or anything. Her main hobby is collecting suicide notes (she even swipes the note of the neighbour who commits suicide on the base). Lena is less prickly and puts up with a fair amount of verbal abuse from Pru but she’s also something of a train wreck, suffering from an eating disorder and struggling to come to terms with her husband’s betrayal. The dialogue between these two characters was riddled with tension and I very much enjoyed their interactions.
However, for me Allcombe was the real star of the show. Although buzzing in the summer, in the winter Allcombe is rather like a ghost town, with boarded-up shops, empty streets and rain-lashed promenades. ‘Place’ is where Whiteley really shines as a writer, often conjuring up settings that neatly reflect the emotional landscape of her main characters.
Light Reading is hard to categorise. There are moments of black comedy throughout the novel, but there is also deep bitterness and anguish. Earlier this year I was told about a new genre of fiction called ‘Chick Noir’, which is said to be postmodern chicklit with a dark edge, and perhaps Light Reading might fit that bill. Either way, Light Reading is a satisfying read with plenty of twists and enough conflict to keep the reader turning the pages. Although it’s probably far too early to be mentioning Christmas, I can’t help but think this novel would make an ideal Christmas present for fans of the detective and chicklit genres.
ISBN-13: 978-0230700628, Macmillan New Writing, 304 pages, £7.99, paperback.
* This is possibly a long shot but if any Vulpes Libris readers can recommend modern novels set in the Westcountry (or written by authors based in the Westcountry), I would be very glad to hear about them in the comments section below.
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