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 Norwegian autumn, but in the darkest days of winter she falls apart.
Meanwhile, for another family, Amalie’s death provides a new beginning. After years of severe health problems, young Kaia receives a new heart the morning after Amalie drowns. Her single mother, Iselin, has sacrificed and struggled to raise Kaia, and things are finally looking up. She’s pursuing her art again in a new, exciting way and has even made an affluent new friend who has taken a special interest in her and Kaia.
Alison knows that her behavior is inappropriate and dangerous. But she’s just trying to help Iselin and Kaia. She can give them the kind of life they’ve never had. By staying close to them, she can still be with her daughter. Kaia is just like Amalie, and Alison is convinced that aspects of Amalie live on in her.
As Alison’s grief transforms into obsession, she won’t allow anything to stop her from getting back what she has lost.
Author Alex Dahl relates that the idea for The Heart Keeper came to her in the summer of 2017 when she read about transplant recipients who claimed to have “inherited” traits and memories from their organ donors. Then the lead character, Alison Miller-Juul, “very insistently came to me.”
Alison is grieving the loss of her only child, Amalie, who drowned a few months ago at the age of five. She is riddled with guilt about Amalie’s tragic passing, and her marriage to Sindre is falling apart. Alison and Sindre donated Amalie’s organs and, as the story progresses, Alison learns the identity of the little girl who received Amalie’s heart, with whom Alison becomes increasingly obsessed and detached from reality. Dahl says that “[w]hat caught my attention initially, was the emotional plausibility of such a thing happening. . . . It resonated with me, because though my own personal circumstances are very different to Alison’s, I’ve been there — right there, in the most impossible of places, hoping against all the odds, begging, praying, for the life of my irreplaceable child.” In Dahl’s case, her six-day-old son contracted meningitis, and nearly died. The experience of watching her infant son spend weeks fighting for his life, surviving blood transfusions and other procedures, “simmered and burned beneath the surface.”
In The Heart Keeper, Dahl unsparingly and bravely explores the anguish Alison experiences after the loss of Amalie, the precious girl she refers to as “little bear.” Alison is consumed with grief. Via her first-person narrative, Alison describes the visceral physical and psychological pain she is experiencing, as well as her futile attempts to numb that pain through medications, alcohol, and therapy. Even though she recognizes that none of those measures will provide any relief from the reality that her daughter is gone forever, Alison succumbs to self-destructive behavior.
Sindre is mourning Amalie along with Alison. A former soldier, his grief manifests in very different ways. He continues working, but is emotionally distant and removed. It becomes clear that he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of his military experiences and, like Alison, is unraveling psychologically. At his breaking point, Alison tries to care for him. But neither of them are so emotionally fragile that neither is capable of supporting and helping the other. Alison observes, “I don’t know how to be me, and I don’t know how to be anything at all for Sindre.” Immediately after losing Amalie, they vowed to be strong for each other, confident that “she wouldn’t have wanted us to come undone, that if we lay down to die, her life would have been for nothing.” Instead, the pain has grown “bigger and sharper every day, . . .”
Sindre’s teenage son from a prior marriage, Oliver, spends half of his time with his father and the other half with his mother. He loved his little half-sister and is also grieving. He tries to be strong for Sindre and Alison, but he is also a victim of circumstances. Sindre and Alison are painfully aware of their inability to provide Oliver the strength and support he needs, which adds to their individual burdens.
In alternating chapters, Dahl also conveys Iselin’s story. Through an empathetic first-person narrative, Dalh portrays the strain that Kaia’s illness has placed on Iselin, especially as a single mother lacking an effective support system. Estranged from their own parents, she is close to her younger sister, a successful disk jockey living in Paris. Kaia’s arrival spelled the end of Iselin dream of a career as an artist. In fact, she has been unable to work at all because of the demands of caring for Kaia, relegated to surviving on the meager income she receives from the Norwegian government. In Kaia’s seven years, Iselin has prepared herself to say good-bye to Kaia many times, and the joy of learning that her daughter now has a chance to lead a long, healthy life is tempered by the knowledge that her joy was only made possible by another family’s tragedy.
The dramatic tension escalates as Oliver announces that his class learned about transplants and the phenomenon known as cellular memory. Since every cell in the human body holds an individual’s complete genetic material, is it possible that transplanted organ’s hold the donor’s memories? Or that the donor’s personal characteristics manifest in the recipient? Sindre does not want to know anything about it, but Alison, a journalist, researches the topic, becoming fixated on finding the donor who received Amalie’s heart. Circumstances conspire to reveal Kaia’s identity to Oliver, who shares the information with Alison. From there, her obsession with finding out whether any aspect of her daughter lives on in Kaia grows stronger, and Alison engages in increasingly deranged, reckless behavior that includes befriending Iselin and Kaia. Alison’s roller coaster of emotions — empathy for Iselin’s circumstances, contrasted with rage, jealousy, resentment, and irrational criticism of the way she parents Kaia — are completely credible. Dahl deftly increases the story’s pace incrementally as Alison learns that since the transplant Kaia has, in fact, engaged in some behaviors that Iselin finds puzzling — and are eerily like things Amalie did. At one point, she insists to Oliver,”She there, in Kaia. She’s not gone, sweetie. Not anymore. We can have her back.” As Alison becomes increasingly unhinged, it is apparent that the result can be nothing short of catastrophic — and her actions lead to a frightening climax.
Dahl says that as she began writing The Heart Keeper, the trauma of nearly losing her own son “began to rear its ugly head again.” The process of penning the novel “got personal, because as writers we go with our characters to the deepest, darkest places, of course we do, we have to.” Dahl believably takes readers to those psychologically dark places her characters inhabit, making the experience of reading The Heart Keeper engrossing, raw and sometimes difficult. Ultimately, writing The Heart Keeper proved cathartic for Dahl because it forced her “to finally face the fear we mothers live with, a fear I think every mother can relate to, and begin to deal with it.” She hopes that the book “succeeds in describing the nuances and intensity of motherhood; the love and light, the fear and darkness, and the hope.”
Dahl’s hope has been realized. The Heart Keeper is a beautifully crafted, believable exploration of the power of loss, and the myriad ways in which grief over the loss of a child can psychologically cripple parents and destroy marriages, especially if one parent feels responsible for the child’s death. It is also a compassionate look at the toll being the caregiver for an ill child can take on a parent, and how the strain is enhanced if that parent is doing so on his or her own. Those two stories are compellingly interwoven in a fast-paced thriller that supplies a satisfying, rational conclusion.
Ultimately, what mother wouldn’t want to believe what Alison, in her damaged state, comes to believe? Dahl convincingly and movingly challenges readers to ponder this question: “in that situation, would you not do anything, believe anything, anything at all, to hold onto what you’d lost?”
Excerpt from The Heart Keeper
I wake all the time; that is, if I sleep at all. The alarm clock projects the time onto the wall on Sindre’s side of the bed and I lie staring at the pulsating dots separating the numbers. It’s just after two o’clock in the morning and Sindre isn’t here. He was here when I fell asleep. At least I think he was. I pull my hand out from underneath the warm duvet and stroke the cool, empty space where my husband should be.
A few nights ago, the same thing happened. I woke, suddenly, bursting from a dream I couldn’t remember into this black, silent room. I blinked repeatedly, trying to make out the bulky shape of Sindre in the dark-I didn’t want to reach for him in case he’d think I wanted something; I wouldn’t have been able to bear his warm, careful hands on my skin. It took me several moments to realize he wasn’t there. I got out of bed and sat on the windowsill, looking out at the forest and beyond, to the lights of the city rising up the hillsides to meet the stars. It was a very cold night for early October, and an orange moon hung low over Tryvann. I felt glad Sindre wasn’t there-it was good to not have to pretend to sleep, even if only for a while.
I was about to return to bed when I spotted something moving in between the trees directly opposite the house, off the gravel path. I moved slightly back from the window as Sindre came out of the forest, dressed in a light blue shirt, half tucked into his trousers, and his expensive leather loafers. His shirt was smeared with a streak of dirt across his chest and he stood awhile in the narrow stretch in between the house and the car, as though he couldn’t decide whether to come back inside or drive away. He turned toward where I stood on the first floor, and only then could I clearly see his face, which was twisted into an uncensored, almost unrecognizable grimace. If the man standing outside our house hadn’t been wearing my husband’s clothes, I’m not sure I’d have recognized him.
Has he gone back out there tonight? I get up and stand awhile by the window. Tonight is stormy, with gray, dripping clouds and a brisk breeze hustling leaves in the garden. The forest stands solid at the far end of our lawn, mist seeping from it and joining the wind in translucent coils. It might feel good to walk into that forest, listening to the whip of the wind cracking branches, to let the cold night inside me, to breathe its moist air all the way into my stomach. It might lessen the burning, even if only for a moment. I sharpen my eyes and focus on the spot from where Sindre emerged the other night, but without the light of the moon, I can’t separate the shape of a man from that of a tree, even if he were standing right there. He could be standing directly in front of me, looking at me, and I wouldn’t see him.
I walk over to the door and stand listening before opening it a crack. This house is rarely silent-it’s as though a faint hum reverberates from within its walls, the bass to every other sound our family layers on top of it-but it’s quiet tonight. I stand on the landing, my eyes smarting in the bright light from the overhead spotlights, listening for that comforting murmur, or for the reassuring signs of some of its occupants, but I hear nothing. I glance over at the door to Amalie’s room and am struck by a wild terror at the thought of what lies behind it. The burning flares up in my gut, as though live flames were shooting around the myriad, dark corridors inside me. I clutch my stomach and force my eyes away from Amalie’s room. I try to think of something to count, anything, and can only think of the steps. Seventeen. Seventeen steps, I can do it. I can go downstairs and get some water and then I can go back upstairs, past Oliver’s room, past Amalie’s room, just like that; I can do it, I’ve done it before, it’s just a bad night, that’s all, and when I get back upstairs I can take a pill from the bedside table, and even if it won’t give me real sleep, it will give me dense, dreamless rest.
In the kitchen, I stand by the sink in the dark. I hear it now, that humming sound. My hands are still holding my abdomen, as though only they stop my insides from spilling out. The burning sensation is fading, and now it feels more like corrosion-as if I’d chewed through a battery.
Severe anxiety, says the doctor.
Hey, baby bear, I whisper. I bet you can see me right now even if I can’t see you. If you can hear me, can you give me a sign, any sign, the smallest of signs? A plate flung to the floor, a light suddenly coming on, an animal screeching outside? I’d see you in those shards, in that bright pool of light, I’d hear you in that sound . . . A sign, baby, my darling angel-please, please speak to me . . .
A light comes on somewhere-a square splash of it spills in through the window and spreads out on the floor behind me. I hold on to the sink with both of my hands; my heart is pounding so hard I can hardly breathe. I want to open my mouth to speak her name again, but no sound will come. I lean toward the window and then I realize that the light is coming from the garage across the narrow pathway.
Sindre is standing at the counter which runs alongside an entire wall of the garage. It’s where he usually stands in winter, patiently prepping our family’s cross-country skis with wax before the weekends – Oliver’s slim racing skis first, then his own, then my beginner ones, and finally Amalie’s short, broad ones with sparkly snow crystals and Queen Elsa’s face stretching toward the tips. I am standing in the space between the house and the garage, bracing myself against the wind, which is much fiercer than I’d thought, and I can just make out those little skis on a hook high up on the wall. Sindre stands with his back to me, but I can make out most of what is on the worktop in front of him. He moves strangely, at times fast and jerkily, at times slowly and smoothly, and it takes me a while to realize that he is polishing weapons. He detaches the telescope from a long, matte hunting rifle, holds it up to the light, then runs a red cloth over the lens. HeÕs going away in a couple of weeks, moose hunting. I’d forgotten. He goes every year at this time-of course he needs to prepare for that.
A volley of rain surges around the corner of the house and shoots down the pathway, pricking my face and hands painfully, and I draw my cardigan around me tighter, but I’m so cold, and perhaps a little cry escapes me, because Sindre suddenly turns around and walks over to the narrow window to peer out. Though I’m not sure why, I press myself against the wall next to the window so he can’t see me. I could just knock lightly on the door and slip into the garage and hug my husband from behind. I could offer him a coffee-I can’t imagine either of us will return to bed tonight. But I don’t. I remain in the passageway, watching him carefully dismantle and reassemble the two rifles, running the cloth in and out of their nooks and crannies. When he has finished he reaches up and lifts a cardboard box down from a shelf above him. It looks like a nondescript brown shoe box. He opens it and removes some newspaper, a kitchen towel, and then, an object.
At first, I can’t tell what it is; it isn’t big, and because Sindre’s back is turned toward me, he is partially blocking my view. Then he puts whatever it is down and takes a couple of steps away to his right, presumably to get something else. I can see it clearly now-it is a steel-gray handgun I’ve never seen before. He opens another box, this one much smaller than the one that held the gun, and shakes several bullets out into his hand. He holds one up to the light, turning it over and around before slotting it, and the others, into the gun’s chambers.
I sometimes think about Sindre’s other life, the life he lived before me. Before our family. I imagine him as he would have been then: in his army helmet and fatigues, trekking in the mountains of the Hindu Kush and Badakhshan, circling in on some of the most wanted war criminals and terrorists in the world. He’d take shelter in caves and sheepherders’ huts, drink from impossibly clear mountain streams, inching his way toward a target until he was close enough to take them out clean. I see him squinting into the sight block-a man’s skull framed, the absolute certainty of his finger on the trigger, the precise, muffled shot. I’ve never asked Sindre how many men he’s killed. Neutralized, he calls it. I don’t know if he knows. Would he count something like that? I know I would.
The life Sindre lived before me and our family seems an almost impossible contrast to the life I lived: growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, then traveling the world-first for fun, and later for work, writing features for glossy magazines and newspaper supplements. I’ve interviewed female heads of state from New Zealand to Iceland, I’ve explored the drug cultures of South American women’s prisons and looked into the increasing wine consumption of the American middle class. When Sindre traveled, it would be to Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan-places he’d go to kill.
He picks up the handgun again, weighs it in his hands, turns it over, and smiles slightly down at it. It occurs to me that he may be about to use it, that he could bring it quickly to his temple and just fire. Still I don’t go in; still I stand watching. What would my husband need a pistol for? I can understand that he needs to keep the hunting rifles, but I can’t imagine what use he could have for a handgun. Maybe he’s always had it, but just hasn’t mentioned it to me? There are many things I don’t know about Sindre, and that air of mystery that seems innate rather than deliberate is precisely one of the things that drew me to him in the first place.
Sindre places the gun back in the box, and the box back up on the shelf. He stands still for a while at the worktop, head bent. I look at his hands-how soft and innocent they look in the meager light. Perhaps he is thinking the same thing because he raises them up toward the light and watches them, turning them over a couple of times. Then he cups them, holding them a few inches apart: his exact pose the first time he held our baby, slick from the womb-one hand underneath her bottom, one cradling her skull. I turn away from him, letting my eyes rest on the scrambling leaves at my feet. When I look back up again, Sindre is studying the palms of his hands, as though searching for clues as to what they’re capable of. I walk back into the house.
I’ve been in bed for less than five minutes when the door softly opens. If my husband touches my face or my hands, he’ll feel the cold clinging to my skin and know that I was outside. But he doesn’t. He lies down on the bed, breathing heavily, as though he is already asleep. He emits a strange smell, like metal and wet earth, and I assume it is the scent of the oil he used to polish the weapons. Suddenly I do want him to touch me-I want to feel his wonderfully soft hands slowly caress my hairline, moving down and around my neck, then across my chest, back to my neck, down my spine . . . I turn slowly toward him and place my hand in the space between us. ItÕs wide and daunting. My hand reaches his lower back, and he twitches at my touch. I slip my hand inside his T-shirt and lightly circle his skin, but he doesnÕt acknowledge my touch or move toward me. In the end, I retract my hand and hold it close to my chest, as though touching him had hurt it.
Mommy, do you ever feel sad for the things that haven’t happened yet, like when I’m big?
Yes. Yes, I do.
Because then you won’t need me anymore and you’ll be independent and sassy and too cool to hang out with your old mom.
That will never happen, Mommy!
Come here and give your mommy a hug, little bear.
Okay, both sides.
Mommy, what would you do if you didn’t have me?
My heart would break.
Hearts can’t break!
Yes, they can.
How do you live with a breaked heart?
I don’t know.
I wake, torn from the dream and delivered, panting, to our cool, familiar bedroom. It’s morning and Sindre’s gone. He’s left a window wide open, though the temperature drops below freezing at night. I sit up in bed, my mind churning, closing my eyes and trying to let go of the dream.
How do you live with a breaked heart?
I get up and put my dressing gown over my pajamas. I can’t remember when I last washed them. The storm has left a glowing, blue sky behind and I stand awhile on the landing, admiring it. I bring my eyes to Amalie’s room, her door firmly shut. I could open it. I could push the door open just a crack and shout, Time to get up, Mills. Usually, she’d be up already, playing with her Sylvanians on the floor or drawing at her desk. I turn away and go downstairs.
“Hi,” says a voice, and I jump, dropping the tea bag I was holding. It’s Oliver, sitting at the kitchen table, cradling his iPad in his hands, his face serious, his brown eyes surrounded by purple circles, so dark it looks as though he’s been punched in the face.
“Oh. Oh, hi, Oliver,” I say, my voice emerging in a scratchy whisper. I flick the switch on the kettle, avoiding my stepson’s gaze. I didn’t realize he was here, though, come to think of it, I can’t seem to keep track of when he was last here and when he is supposed to go to his mother’s.
Excerpted from The Heart Keeper by Alex Dahl. Copyright © 2019 by Alex Dahl. All rights reserved.
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