Trauma in childhood assumes many forms. This message resonates loudly through multiple characters in Amanda Coe’s debut novel, What They Do in the Dark. Two school girls, Gemma and Pauline, live in the same rough Yorkshire neighborhood but inhabit different worlds. Gemma comes from a financially stable yet broken family, while Pauline grows up in abject poverty with an abusive mother. Through a random playground encounter, the two girls become reluctant acquaintances and find a strange brand of stability in each other. As the story evolves, however, their partnership becomes more volatile. Other characters’ stories, including those of a child television star and a bullied classmate, become interwoven and, in Lord of the Flies-fashion, tragedy ensues.
A screenwriter, Coe does an excellent job setting the scene. Readers experience the grittiness of a working-class neighborhood in England, witness the cruelty that poorly supervised school-aged children can inflict on one another, and are confronted with the dangers facing any child who lacks a social safety net. The terse and plain-spoken dialogue between the characters also lends to the tension and instability that exist.
This book does take patience. The plot is subtle. The chapters are short and at first provide seemingly random snapshots into the two girls’ and other characters’ lives. But for readers who stick with the book, all of these pieces evolve into a darker and more complex tale. Much like Emma Donoghue’s Room or Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, both of which focus on children raised in violent and dysfunctional environments, this story leaves a strong and unsettling impression.