Reviewed by Harriet
It’s every parent’s nightmare – one minute your child is there, next minute they’re gone. My own three-year-old daughter once wandered off in a busy market in central London, and the hour or so before we tracked her down to a nearby police station was one of the most agonising of my life. Even if that’s never happened to you – even if you’re not a parent – you won’t have much trouble in empathising with the parents in this story, each of whom loses not one but two children on what had promised to be an enjoyable family day out.
As the novel begins, two cousins, Liv and Nora, together with their husbands Benjamin and Raymond, are checking themselves and their kids onto a massive cruise ship, heading for a two-week trip down the coast of Mexico and Central America. Nora, still devastated by her mother’s recent death, hasn’t been able to face the thought of Christmas at home in LA, so this adventure is designed to ease both families over what might have been a gloomy celebration. The cousins are very close, so their children – Liv’s Sebastian and Penny, eight and eleven, and Nora’s six-year-old June and Marcus, also eleven – have practically grown up together, and both families are anticipating the coming weeks with great excitement. Soon, the families befriend an Argentinian couple with two attractive teenage children, Hector and Isabel, who the younger kids look up to with great admiration.
Life on board the ship promises to be perfect for both adults and kids, for whom there are many activities on offer. And surely it is a safe environment, assuming the kids don’t actually try to climb over the rails. Liv is especially anxious about Sebastian, who is diabetic, and there are a couple of false alarms on board as the children set about exploring, but they always reappear safe and well. But everything changes one day when the three families decide to take advantage of some of the extra on-shore options on offer. The husbands are keen on to spend a day golfing, and the wives and children opt for a zip-line adventure. They part at the quay, where a pleasant young local man, Pedro, appears with a minivan to escort the family down the coast. However, the van is involved in a minor accident which renders it undriveable, so Pedro suggests they all go to the beach until help can arrive. A fateful decision. While Liv and Camila doze on the beach, and Nora disappears into the nearby jungle for a bit of (uncharacteristic) illicit sex with Pedro, the children decide to follow the river that runs down into the sea. By the time their mothers realise they are missing, there is no sign of them at all.
From here on the novel splits into two main narratives. We know right away what has happened to the children – they have been picked up by some very dodgy people and spirited away far from the shore. Quite apart from the unsatisfactory conditions of their imprisonment and their desire to escape, there’s the problem of Sebastian’s medication – without it he cannot survive. Meanwhile, the parents’ become increasingly desperate, and relationships sour. The husbands are inclined to blame the wives for negligence, and Nora in particular is consumed with guilt and fear that Raymond will discover her infidelity. And here, in a foreign country whose police themselves cannot be fully relied upon or trusted, everything looks grim indeed.
Well, obviously the terms ‘page-turner’ and ‘unputdownable’ spring to mind here. But there’s more to this novel than thrills and suspense. It also takes an immensely thoughtful and sensitive look at family life: the children are beautifully portrayed, their responses to the frightening and tragic events of their kidnapping and their interactions with each other wholly believable. In addition, the novel excels at depicting the delicate balance that exists even within apparently happy and successful marriages. As well as the parents, there are also the perpetrators of the kidnap, another family with its own mistrust and inner tensions. There’s also a sub-plot, the relevance of which is not immediately obvious, in which a young Columbian girl has been taken from a not entirely satisfactory home with her grandmother and is being transported to some unknown destination by a man who claims to be her uncle. The uncertainty of her future and the dangers of her journey add to the already highly charged menace and tension of the main plot.
I’d never heard of Maile Meloy, but it seems she is a prizewinning novelist and short-story writer. On the strength of this novel, I will certainly be seeking out some more of her work.
Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.
Maile Meloy, Do Not Become Alarmed (Penguin Viking, 2017). 978-0241305461, 304pp., paperback.
BUY Do Not Become Alarmed from the Book Depository.