34839317 DO NOT BECOME ALARMED

Maile Meloy (www.mailemeloy.com)

Viking (www.penguinrandomhouse.co.uk)

£8.99

Cousins Liv and Nora have decided to take their families – a husband and two young children each – on a cruise down the western coast of the Americas. The giant ship on which they find themselves has everything they could possibly want, and it seems that this could be an idyllic time for the two families. When the ship docks in a small, unnamed, Central American country, the husbands are invited ashore for a game of golf. The wives, meanwhile, decide to take the children on an adventure, just not the adventure that ultimately awaits them. Following an accident involving their bus, their guide takes them to a small, secluded beach to spend the afternoon until alternative transport turns up. Nora heads off into the trees with the guide, ostensibly to look for birds, while Liv takes a nap on the beach. When their attention returns to the water, where the children have been playing, they discover the children are gone, carried downstream by the river’s powerful currents to a rendezvous that might mean their disappearance is permanent.

It’s clear from the outset that Maile (pronounced MY-lee) Meloy’s new novel is not your average psychological thriller to be consigned to the beach bag and read in brief snatches when you’re not in the water, or working through that latest pitcher of sangria. There’s a hard edge to Meloy’s voice, and a sass to the central characters that makes them stick in your head, and demands that you pay them the attention they deserve. I read Do Not Become Alarmed in two short sittings, which is something I can only claim for a small handful of the most gripping novels.

When we meet Liv and Nora, as they board the cruise ship that will be their home for the next two weeks, it’s immediately clear how close they are – cousins who spent most of their formative years as close as sisters, forming a seemingly unbreakable bond that, thankfully, seems to have spread to their husbands and their children. Outgoing and friendly, they instantly hit it off with an older Brazilian couple who are travelling with their two teenage children. There’s a natural feel to the group make-up, and so we don’t question the separate paths that husbands and wives take when they eventually decide to go ashore. The short-lived bus trip to a zip-line tour will be recognisable to anyone who has ever booked a tour in a foreign country, and is enough to make you think twice about booking any more in the future. There are parallels with Scott Smith’s The Ruins here, as we head in-country, towards an unknown disaster waiting to strike.

Do Not Become Alarmed is not a police procedural, and while there is a police presence, it’s not what the story is about. The main detective seems to give only a half-hearted performance – it’s Christmas, and she is covering someone else’s shift – and this forces the reader’s attention back onto the main characters. Alternating between the points of view of the adults and the children, Meloy examines the different ways in which we respond to crises. Tensions immediately arise between the adults, first between Nora and Liv – one of whom was being unfaithful while the other napped – and soon between the wives and their husbands. Recriminations are bandied about as they casually inflict wounds upon each other, home truths revealed as tempers fray and patience grows thin.

The children, meanwhile, are the complete opposite, forming stronger bonds as they deal with this new and frightening situation. Taken by a small group of people when they stumble upon an impromptu burial, they find themselves in a large house in the middle of nowhere, in the care of a cruel man and a small group of thugs. The one saving grace comes in the form of the cruel man’s brother, a man determined to find a way to return the children to their parents without incriminating himself, his family, or the criminal network that they run, because it’s easier on his conscience than killing them and making them disappear. It is interesting to watch this man, George, and his developing relationship with the children, and their opinion of him.

[[Penny’s] heart sank a little when she saw June sitting on George’s knees at the breakfast table. June had been upstairs for like two minutes! And George was really Penny’s discovery. But no one was ever going to take Penny on their lap on first meeting her.]

Each of the characters, both adult and children, leap fully-formed from the page. We can, and do, identify with each of them at different points in the narrative, including George, even though we should be baying for his blood. Meloy has her finger on the pulse of human emotion, and captures the atmosphere brilliantly in her sparse descriptions and clipped dialogue. The contrast between the parents falling apart and the children finding strength in each other’s company is striking. There are times when we question whether the children being returned to their parents is the best possible outcome – the selfishness and horror on show from the so-called mature people leaves a sour taste in the mouth, and leaves any parent hoping that they might care more for their children, and less for themselves, should they ever find themselves in the same situation.

Immediately gripping, Do Not Become Alarmed demands that we read on regardless of what else might be going on around us. It’s a beautifully-written and plausible thriller that is full of heart and humour, with very dark undertones. Powerful and disturbing, it takes us from one shock to the next, building tension towards an ending that could go either way, the real beauty lying in the fact that Meloy keeps us guessing from one page to the next all the way to the final scene. This is the first book I’ve read by Maile Meloy (I’m ashamed to admit that I had never heard her name before Do Not Become Alarmed dropped through my letterbox). It certainly won’t be the last, and I can only urge you to take a chance and possibly find yourself a new favourite author.

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