THE HEART KEEPER by Alex Dahl
CBTB Rating: 4.5/5
The Verdict: A compelling blend of Nordic + domestic noir
What do you get when you cross Scandinavian sensibility with psychological suspense? Enter Alex Dahl’s unputdownable, wholly original brand of Nordic psychological thriller. On the heels of 2018’s excellent The Boy at the Door, Dahl’s 2019 release THE HEART KEEPER delivers a story of motherhood and grief even more emotionally impactful and addictive than Dahl’s first US outing. In THE HEART KEEPER, tragedy strikes a Norwegian family, and their young daughter passes away. But somewhere else in Norway, another family’s life is changed for the better when their young girl receives the call that she’s been waiting for her whole life: a donor heart has been found for her, at long last. As the paths between the two families slowly but surely converge, a mother’s grief turns to dark obsession. THE HEART KEEPER is a slow-burn story, but don’t let its pacing fool you: this book is utterly riveting with just the right amount of juicy drama—the kind of novel you’ll find yourself turning off the TV just to keep reading. The visceral emotion on display in this story, and Dahl’s uncanny ability to write characters whose twisted actions do nothing to diminish our sympathy for them, make THE HEART KEEPER a Summer 2019 standout. Alex Dahl continues to distinguish herself for her compelling blend of Nordic and domestic noir, and THE HEART KEEPER is another feather in the cap of this up-and-coming crime fiction star.
Two mothers. Two daughters. One heart.
When Alison's beloved daughter Amalie drowns, her world turns impenetrably dark. Alison tries to hold it together throughout the bleak Fall, but in the darkest days of the Norwegian Winter she completely falls apart.
In another family, Amalie's passing is a new beginning. After years of severe health problems, young Kaia receives a new heart on the morning after Amalie drowns. Her mother Iselin has struggled to raise Kaia on her own and now things are finally looking up. She's even made an affluent new friend who's taken a special interest in her and her daughter.
Alison knows she shouldn't interfere, but really, she's just trying to help Iselin and Kaia. She can give them the life they never had, and by staying close to them, she can still be with her daughter. Kaia is just like her, and surely, something of Amalie must live on in her. As her grief transforms into a terrifying obsession, Alison won't let anything stop her from getting back what she has lost.
If you asked me to build myself my dream summer beach read, it would probably sound a lot like Alex Dahl’s novels: something Scandinavian (no surprise there!), but something a bit lighter in content and built for a poolside binge-read. THE HEART KEEPER is exactly that kind of novel. Set in Norway, THE HEART KEEPER reads more like a psychological suspense story by Fiona Barton or Clare Mackintosh than your traditional Nordic Noir tome. Stylish and sleek, brooding and melancholy, THE HEART KEEPER’s atmosphere is Scandinavian through and through, but that’s where this book’s similarities to what we typically consider Scandinavian crime fiction end. THE HEART KEEPER is a deliciously dramatic suspense story, one that will get under your skin and keep you entertained in equal measure. At the heart of this immersive novel are love, grief, and obsession—a deadly cocktail that collide to shocking end in Dahl’s capable hands. How far would you go to feel close to a loved one you’ve lost? Dahl pushes readers to the extreme alongside her bereaved protagonist in THE HEART KEEPER.
THE HEART KEEPER introduces readers to two mothers: Alison and Iselin. Alison and Iselin couldn’t be more different. Alison has a loving husband, a gorgeous home, and a beautiful family; she seems to want for nothing. Iselin is a single mother, scraping by on unemployment benefits while she stays home to care for her severely ill daughter, Kaia. When tragedy strikes Alison’s family, leaving Alison’s young daughter dead, Alison’s domestic bliss is shattered. Her grief plunges her into a darkness from which she is not sure she will ever recover. Meanwhile, Iselin receives the phone call she has been dreaming of: a donor heart has been found for her daughter, Kaia. Suddenly, Iselin’s fortune seems to change. Following the transplant surgery, Kaia’s health and strength begin to return—a miraculous recovery that Iselin never dreamed possible for her daughter. And to make matters even better, Iselin’s art career finally seems to be finding its footing, thanks to a wealthy benefactor. But what Iselin doesn’t know - what she could never suspect - is that the kind and generous stranger who has taken an interest in her and her daughter might have dark motivations. Because a bit of Alison’s daughter is still alive, and Alison is determined to get close to her, no matter what the cost.
It was true in Dahl’s previous novel The Boy at the Door, and it’s true here: Alex Dahl has a knack for writing twisted characters who are deeply sympathetic, despite their often unhinged behavior. Alison takes center stage in THE HEART KEEPER, and what a riveting character she is. When her blissful life is shattered by tragedy, Alison’s psyche is shattered, too. Broken by the loss of her daughter, Alison begins self-medicating with alcohol, sleeping away as much of the day as she can to avoid the tragedy of her new reality. There are few things more riveting to me as a reader than observing the unraveling of a character, and Dahl writes Alison’s descent into madness with stunning emotional insight and just the right amount of drama to keep readers hooked. Even as Alison’s behavior becomes increasingly irrational and even twisted, readers will hold on to a kernel of sympathy for this tragic figure. She is, after all, simply a mother who has lost a child—even if, in attempting to soothe her own pain, she threatens the safety of someone else’s child in turn. There are moments when THE HEART KEEPER does ask its readers to suspend reality just a bit, but through all this story’s dramatic twists and turns, it never loses its visceral emotional impact. Dahl masterfully illustrates the fears of motherhood through both Alison and Iselin, two women who are desperate to love and care for their little girls the best they can.
THE HEART KEEPER is a slow-burn crime novel, a story in which two seemingly innocuous plotlines steadily converge, resulting in disaster. The pacing of this book is measured, but intentionally so: Dahl effectively draws readers between Alison and Iselin’s narratives, slowly but surely outlining the collision course these two women are on. This is not an action-packed thriller; readers hoping for flashy plot twists or bloody violence won’t find what they are looking for here. But Dahl’s writing is riveting, and the measured pacing of THE HEART KEEPER does nothing to undermine its binge-worthiness. This story begs to be obsessed over, its tantalizing plotting and the promise of what’s to come keeping readers glued to the pages. But more than anything else, this story is an emotional reading experience. In my Q&A with Alex, she shared how writing this novel was a therapeutic experience for her—a story which allowed her to draw on and probe personal experiences. And that is exactly why I loved this book so much. After finishing THE HEART KEEPER, I was left with the distinct impression that this novel was injected with so much of its author’s heart and fears, and it was that quality - this raw emotion - that made this novel such a hit for me. THE HEART KEEPER is immersive, obsessive, page-turning suspense - a perfect late-summer binge read.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review. All opinions my own.
Paperback: 384 pages
Publisher: Berkley (July 16, 2019)
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