I was delighted when I spotted Maile Meloy’s name in the publishing schedules. I’d enjoyed her previous novels, even going so far as to read her short stories – this was long before my conversion. Her writing is quite subtle, nuanced explorations of relationships and their dynamics. On closer inspection, it turned out her new novel might be a thriller, quite a few steps away from my usual literary territory but worth a try given how long it’s been since Meloy published anything for adults. The premise is reminiscent of those yuppie nightmare novels published back in the ‘80s: two families take themselves off on a cruise at Christmas, seduced by the idea of free time together while their kids are entertained but things go horribly wrong.
Nora and Liv are more like sisters than cousins. Liv even introduced Nora to her husband, recognisable to many from his movie performance as an astronaut. Nora has been hit hard by the death of her mother prompting Liv to suggest the cruise. At first all goes well. The kids take to life aboard ship, soon developing crushes on the teenage children of a glamorous Argentinean couple. All three families have avoided excursions until ‘the Switzerland of Latin America’ hoves into view, a country not only regarded as safe but comparatively liberal, satisfying the sensibilities of the Americans. Gunther invites the American husbands to a swanky golf club he knows while their wives take the children off on an excursion. When their guide’s car suffers a blow-out he proposes waiting for a replacement at a nearby beach. Liv and Camilla fall asleep, lulled by the soporific heat, while Nora disappears with the guide leaving the children busy building a raft. Soon they’re caught by a tide that washes them up quite some distance from the beach. Hector decides to swim back, telling the younger children and his sister to wait for him but when a jeep turns up driven by a woman they decide to take their chances and ask for a lift.
Meloy puts to good use the skills I found so appealing in her previous fiction, deftly exploring the tensions between her adult characters pulled tight by the disappearance of their children. The narrative’s perspective shifts smoothly from the parents to the children and back again, effectively cranking up the suspense. It’s as page-turning as a thriller should be but there’s an undercurrent of social conscience running through the novel. Meloy draws sharp contrasts between rich and poor – the North American children are horrified at what Central Americans take for granted. She uses the fallout from the children’s disappearance to demonstrate that no matter how much their wealth may cushion their families, fear cannot be escaped. It’s not a match for Meloy’s previous work for me but then I’m much more of an Anne Tyler kind of gal which is where I’d rank Liars and Saints, and Both Ways is the Only Way I Want it. That said, if you’re looking for an intelligent but easy read, this one’s well worth considering.