I like Alex Dahl’s psychological mysteries very much, the stories are very different but at the heart of each novel is the relationship between a mother, a child and a crime that separates them. Each time Dahl manages to ignite the primal fear that all parents have of losing a child and each new tale feels like a maturation of the themes explored in the previous novel. Of course this is emotional territory, empathy for the torment of a distressed mother is natural but Dahl riffs on real pain, it’s more visceral than a vague sense of dread and sympathy. Her stories are edgy and gripping and a great read for that, but there’s more depth here. Dahl’s stories flip our expectations of characters, so beware of making judgements because the things you think you know will appear very different by the end of the novel.
Playdate is a story with real heart, surprising and chilling but the novel is more than an entertainment. As the story unfolds Dahl’s exploration of her characters allows readers to go deep into their psyche, an empathetic tale becomes a very compassionate one – who you have compassion for may surprise you – we can’t condone what happens but can feel like we understand it and that is very satisfying. There are no pat answers, no irredeemable villains. The situation that has led to the kidnapping is tragic and messy, the kind of mess ordinary people, real people fall into. Of course, the results are not always this extreme but don’t go thinking the danger isn’t real, these are damaged souls. The characters are compelling, richly drawn, very human, strong and frail, wise and incredibly stupid, clear headed and sadly deluded. The twist, perhaps more accurate to say volte-face, is not gimmicky and being made to examine the story from a completely different perspective is exciting and emotionally rewarding.
Prologue: A mother feels the calm warmth of her child, love eases her mind, they are reunited, almost one entity again, then the child is ripped away – she wakes from her dream screaming in the dark.
19th October 2017, Sandefjord. Elisa Blix, mother of two, has an unusually calm and quiet day but then picks up her son Lyder from nursery; he’s moody, the traffic is bad, she arrives at Lucia’s school late, flustered. Lucia comes running up, she wants to go to Josie’s house to play. Elisa doesn’t know Josie or her mum, they’ve just arrived at the school. Her reluctance disappears when she meets Josie’s mum, Line is beautiful, calm and reassuring. So Elisa agrees to the Playdate. The women swap details, a pick up is arranged for 6.30pm. however, at 6pm Lucia calls, can she stay over? Again Elisa agrees and drops round some pyjamas, she stops for a drink. It’s a beautiful house overlooking the beach, Line is a beauty consultant, her husband a banker with Paribas, everything feels very normal, very comfortable. Elisa is away the next morning, she’s a flight attendant, it’s up to husband Fredrik to collect Lucia. Line calls Fredrik to tell him she’s taking the girls swimming and will drop Lucia off in the afternoon but she never shows up, he assumes it’s a miscommunication Elisa can sort out. Fredrik collects Elisa from the airport and they drive to Line’s house, the truth is suddenly clear. A cleaning lady says the owner is away, he lives Stockholm, and lets the place on Airbnb. Now panicking they report Lucia’s disappearance to the police. Line and the children have gone, no sign, Line’s details were false. The nightmare begins.
The investigation has the couple second guessing themselves, feeling guilty about why they are the victims of this cruel crime. What did they do that might have brought this on, what if it wasn’t a random kidnapping? Their social media profiles are picked over, what is normal behaviour, how safe is it to post photos of your children online? Do they have any enemies? Their lives are bared to scrutiny. Fredrik has a secret, he owns up but Elise is also hiding something. This is a clever set up, it will have readers examining their own attitudes to contemporary concerns. There are clues peppered across the novel that mean nothing when you read them but then something happens and the clue clicks into place, it’s very subtle.
The story is told from the perspective of Elise and Lucia but also journalist Selma who adds a detachment and perspective to the emotional depth. Playdate explores grief, the loss of a child, the difficulties of modern life and the corrosive nature of secrets. It’s an atmospheric read, a tale of revenge and obsession.
The novel will remind people of the terrible situation of the McCann family after Madeline was taken and the rush to judgement. That’s intentional by way of solidarity with parents in such an awful place. However, Dahl’s story goes it’s own way, Playdate looks at the kidnap as an event with a less sinister motive, none the less it is fraught and tragic, just be aware not everything is black and white. This is an engaging and emotionally draining read, a superb psychological thriller.
Head of Zeus, hardback, ISBN 9781789544077, 1/10/20