When I was about thirteen I was on a holiday to the US of A with my sister and father, initially to attend a family friendly conference followed by a mini road trip around a few North-Eastern states. We’d set off in the morning for that day’s adventure – a stop at a wolf sanctuary here, the country’s grimmest ghost town there – and would check into motels at night. One evening after settling into our accommodation we suddenly remembered we hadn’t eaten since lunchtime, so Dad set off to find a convenience store to assuage our grumbling stomachs. So far, so routine. My sister and I happily watched Happy Days on Nick at Night. Then an episode of I Dream of Jeannie.
By the time the next programme was due to start our little brains had started to worry, then by the time it had finished we were in full scale panic mode. What if he’d been murdered for loose change by a drifter? Or gotten into a bar brawl? Or been mauled by a bear? We were in America, we’d seen the movies! Shortly afterwards he returned, of course, laden down with that night’s supper (he’d gotten distracted by some local landmark I think, and simply lost track of time), but I’ll never forget the feeling of desolation, like the end of the world had actually happened and my sister and I were doomed in this strange and unforgiving country.
I can only imagine then, being on the other side; a parent who loses a child. My fear was palpable but really quite irrational; when children wander off or get taken there’s a very real chance they won’t be seen again. This is the terrifying premise at the heart of Do Not Become Alarmed, a riveting novel by Maile Meloy that will leave you white knuckled with tension. Liv and Nora are cousins who have grown up together, Nora having moved in with Liv’s family at a fairly young age when her mother couldn’t take care of her anymore. Her grief then when her mother dies is unexpectedly deep, so instead of their usual Christmas spent at the family home Liv proposes the idea of a South American cruise with their husbands and coterie of kids.
Everyone agrees it’s a great idea. The cousins have four children between them, a boy and a girl each. Liv’s daughter is a precocious 11 year old with a bossy streak, cultivated perhaps as a result of having to look after her little brother who suffers from diabetes (uh oh). Nora’s son is around the same age as Liv’s daughter, his 6 year old sister is an outgoing and lively child who is predictably doted on. Liv’s husband is a beta male engineer, Nora’s is a well-known actor. A content little family unit, ready to sail away for a while and leave all their troubles behind.
A fateful trip ashore to ‘the Switzerland of South America’ along with an Argentinian family they befriend changes all that. A series of small, seemingly innocuous set-backs and re-arrangements see the women and children relax on a secluded beach instead of doing the zip-wire activity that had been planned, while the men go golfing. The children are left to their own devices, and construct a makeshift raft which ultimately floats them off inland down the river that flows into the sea. The alligator infested river, that floats into the sea. Once the women realise they’re gone it’s too late – another series of poor decisions mean the children float into even more peril than simply facing river dwelling animals that want nothing more than to eat them whole.
Meloy is known for her character studies, and even though this is a thrilling page turner the character development is fully rounded. The liberal Americans’ low-key prejudices, and the turmoil over who to blame is tantamount. The story often veers into uncomfortable and unexpected directions that take it to places you wouldn’t expect it to go, and its unusual narrative style, flipping back and forth between three groups that will ultimately collide, keeps the pace up to 90. A gripping read about every parent’s, and child’s, worse nightmare, Do Not Become Alarmed will have you making sure you give your loved ones an extra special hug once you’ve finished, and can breathe again.
First published in The Tuam Herald on 04.10.17