Monday, July 22, 2019

Book Review: The Heart Keeper

By Jami Deise

As writers, we are told to write what scares us. As parents, nothing scares us more than something happening to our child. Author Elizabeth Stone is credited with the famous quote that parenthood “is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.” She is, of course, referring to the child’s body. But what happens when your child’s heart is walking around in the body of a stranger?

In The Heart Keeper, the latest book by Norwegian author Alex Dahl, (see my review of her earlier book, The Boy at the Door, here) forty-something mother Alison has everything – a beautiful home, a devoted husband, a loyal stepson and devoted daughter – until her six-year-old daughter Amalie drowns. After donating her daughter’s heart, Alison and her husband spiral separately down into grief.

The recipient of Amalie’s heart is Kaia, nearly the same age as Amalie and the perpetually sick child of a struggling single mom. Iselin had Kaia alone at nineteen, quitting art school in Paris and returning to Norway alone. They live in a basement apartment; Iselin sleeps on a pull-out couch in the living room. The two mothers couldn’t be more different.

When Alison’s stepson Oliver reads an article about brave little Kaia and her heart transplant, he realizes that Kaia has his sister’s heart. At first, Alison doesn’t want to know anything about Kaia. But after reading stories of transplant recipients adopting some of their donors’ mannerisms due to “cell memories,” she tracks down Iselin and slowly, subtly, begins worming her way into their lives.

The Heart Keeper begins slowly; the book starts after Amalie’s death, and Dahl keeps the details from the reader well into the book. With the slow pacing and the disparity between Alison and Iselin, I was afraid that the author was trying to make a case that Alison somehow deserved to raise Kaia. But Dahl is a much better writer than that, and the slow build is completely necessary for the story she tells.

As Alison’s mind gradually begins to betray her, Iselin’s life becomes better and better – not only because a healthy Kaia can finally enjoy life, but because Alison’s attention, financial and otherwise, broadens Iselin’s social and career prospects in a way she never could have foreseen. While puzzled by the older woman’s attention – Alison, of course, never tells her who she is or even that she had a daughter – Iselin never really questions it.

The characterization is so careful, the reader can’t help but root for an impossible ending in which Alison tells the truth and Iselin welcomes her help in raising Kaia. Perhaps in a Hallmark movie, but not in a psychological thriller. Even young Kaia, who would be a prop in the hands of a lesser writer, balances excitement over Alison’s attention with a wariness of a child who utterly loves her mother, warts and all.

The only issue I had with the book is the uneven treatment given to Alison’s husband Sindre. He has a breakdown early in the book that is never mentioned again; later she suspects he’s cheating; their relationship is never resolved. But this isn’t really their story anyway, although the death of a child often results in the death of a marriage. Rather, it’s the relationship between two mothers and one child – a dynamic that, since the days of King Solomon, has torn readers in two.

Thanks to Berkley for the book in exchange for an honest review.

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