Do Not Become Alarmed: Maile Meloy

★★★½

This, like The Last Days of Summer, was a surprise book that arrived in my postbox with no warning or introduction and, like The Last Days, it’s a thriller that confronts us with one of life’s nightmarish situations. It begins when Liv and Nora, two cousins, decide to get away from it all with their families for a different kind of Christmas holiday. They take a luxurious cruise down the coast from California to South America, savouring the sun and the freedom from responsibility. But when a shore excursion goes horribly wrong, the two families are left to face up to every parent’s greatest fear.

Liv and Nora have remained close ever since their shared childhood and their lives have grown comfortably intertwined: film-executive Liv introduced Nora to her suave actor husband Raymond. Now their children are growing similarly close: Liv’s opinionated, bossy Penny (11) and sweet, vulnerable Sebastian (8) knocking around happily with Nora’s pragmatic, slightly autistic son Marcus (11) and bubbly, cute June (6). Even Liv’s husband Benjamin is beginning to relax on the cruise. Initially they’re happy to explore the never-ending wonders of the ship, with its numerous restaurants, its tennis court and pools, and the crowning glory of the Kids’ Club, which means the children can be magically disposed of whenever the parents want some ‘me’ time.

And then they decide to go ashore. It’s meant to be a day out, a break from the shipboard monotony. Raymond and Benjamin are seduced by the promise of a day’s golf with the urbane Argentinian Gunther and a local friend of his, while Liv and Nora are tempted by the prospect of a jungle zip-wire adventure with the children, and with Gunther’s wife Camila and children Hector and Isabel. Husbands and wives part on the quay. But Liv and Nora never make it to the zip-wire. When their guide’s car is involved in an accident, they agree to pass the time down at a secluded beach nearby. The children play in the shallows; Liv and Camila relax on the beach; and Nora indulges in a spot of forbidden flirtation with the guide. Then Nora slips off with him into the forest and Liv and Camila drop off – just for a moment, but when they awake, their children have vanished, carried up a nearby river by the changing of the tide.

There is never any doubt in our minds about what is happening to the children, because we follow the story from multiple perspectives. The tension of the story comes in the way that the parents react to the news, and how it brings out the cracks in relationships that seemed, until this point, to be unshakeable. It’s a study of guilt and anxiety, and also a shrewd look at how Americans fare in foreign countries: a culture clash, if you like. While the parents fret and simmer, with no news, we also follow the children who find themselves faced by a series of terrifying experiences far more complicated than they could ever have imagined. Meloy’s deft perspective-hopping works well, particularly in the case of the adults as we watch guilt and blame work their wicked magic.

I don’t read pure thrillers very often and had forgotten the pleasure of a light, pacy, turn-the-page read like this. It isn’t a book I’ll want to come back to again and again, to savour its writing or to tease out its characterisation, but it makes for an engaging diversion. I’m almost tempted to recommend it as a summer-holiday read, but perhaps it should only be indulged in if you aren’t travelling with children, as it’s likely to make you paranoid.

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I received a copy of the book from Penguin Viking in return for a fair and honest review

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