This is Dahl’s follow-up to her bombshell debut, The Boy at the Door, a twisty psychological drama that became one of the must reads of last year. A layered thriller that combined heart-stopping tension and a real sense of threat with an intriguing and, at times, complex plot. This novel has a far less complicated structure, relying solely on the psychological and emotional pull of the story and the central characters. I really enjoyed The Boy at the Door for its monkey puzzle plot, multiple characters, locations and shifting time frames. Also, it’s constant revelations and surprises. It was everything one could hope for in an intelligent first crime novel, a perfect way for the author to introduce herself. The Heart Keeper is a different beast, while maintaining some of the themes of the first novel, is a more mature work, even though it is only Dahl’s second book. It’s a settled piece, this is a writer fully at home with her material and the story is focused and refined. It won’t surprise you the way The Boy at the Door did but it will grip you and shake you and rinse out your heart. Once again the novel deals with a child in jeopardy but rather than a story that has multiple strands that coalesce around an extraordinary event, this story is more grounded. There are less fireworks but the emotional impact of the story is huge. It’s no secret to say that Dahl attributes the inspiration for The Heart Keeper to an incident years ago when the life of her first child was saved by the neo-natal care unit at Ullevål University Hospital. Writers invent but the emotional force of this novel comes from experience. The Heart Keeper, more than the first novel, reveals that Dahl has the ability to be a stayer. This is the kind of consummate storytelling that makes you think about the issues it highlights as well as savouring the excitement of the fast moving plot. I can imagine it being the focus of an intriguing debate at a readers group.

The story is told through the eyes of two very different women. A successful journalist, Alison, and an unemployed single mother, Iselin. Both face the most difficult thing life can throw at a parent: the loss of a child. Alison loses Amalie to an accident, while Iselin’s daughter, Kaia, is dying from a degenerative condition. Both of the women are consumed by grief, fear, and guilt. Iselin is talented, she could be an artist but she has to devote her time to Kaia. Neither can sleep soundly, and even after Kaia has had life-saving surgery her mother is still in limbo, facing a daily ordeal, the success of the operation doesn’t make the fear go away. Although there is a contrast in the fortunes of these women more unites them that divides them. The first half of The Heart Keeper is a psychological study of grief and survival, a powerful insight into a mother’s loss, a living death, and a mother’s fight for the survival of her child, the pain of treading on eggshells and counting every breath.

Alison Miller-Juul is dead, not literally, but to all intents and purposes, her heart is buried with the little daughter she lost in an accident some months before. Grief and guilt taint everything, even the fleetingly happy memories of Amalie. Booze and pills numb by they don’t dull the senses, they don’t provide rest or sleep. Alison wakes in the middle of the night to find that her husband, Sindre, is not beside her again. They are a couple, they have sworn to stay together, but they grieve separately. Out the window Alison sees Sindre, a dishevelled figure, the look on his face isn’t like anything she’s seen before. Later, she watches him in the garage, he has a shoebox on a shelf containing a pistol, he used to be a soldier but why does he need that gun? Alison doesn’t reach out to him, just as he doesn’t reach for her when they return to bed. When they do talk:

‘I feel like I’ve lost you, too,’ Sindre whispers.
‘You have,’ I whisper back, and we both cry, then. ‘I’m not me anymore.’
‘Neither am I.’
‘No.’

Oliver, Sindre’s son by his first marriage, is with them, he wants to console them. Alison is seeing a therapist but Sindre bottles up his feelings. It will catch up with his as he tries to go on as normal with life and work. Oliver wants to talk about Amalie, he mentions that an organ donor can save eight other lives, his sister gave her heart. He talks of cell memory and the vegetarian who came to love burgers after receiving a new heart from a meat eater. Sindre isn’t interested but Alison begins to think…

Three months earlier. Iselin plays with her child, Kaia, this may be their last few moments together. The next stop is the Rikshospitalet Children’s Clinic. However, Kaia survives the operation, her new heart beats like a drum. Dr. Harari advises Iselin to be careful but the prospects for Kaia are very good, she has a future. Iselin is worried; all she can do is be there, be attentive, follow the rules of the treatment and help her child live . They tell their story to a magazine…

The Heart Keeper is about the two women and their two children, one dead, one alive. It’s a powerful study of grief and loss, guilt, recriminations, trauma and PTSD, and survival. The girls are a piece of the heart of each of the women but the effects on Sindre and Oliver of losing a daughter and a sister are equally touching.

As I have no wish to spoil the plot for anyone, so I won’t say much about the second half of the novel. I think you will figure it out, you are meant to because that’s what makes the psychological element of the story work so well, you know what’s coming. As the lives of the two women and that of little Kaia cross paths, a host of emotions are unleashed, lies are told, a subtle psychological manipulation comes into play and a dark chilling thriller takes flight. Suffice to say that the desolation of grief can damage people, things can get twisted out of shape in the mind and even good intentions can be corrupted.

Paul Burke 4/5

The Heart Keeper by Alex Dahl
Head of Zeus 9781786699275 hbk Jul 2019