Do Not Become Alarmed
by Maile Meloy
This book reads like it was written for a TV movie. Two American families embark on a luxury cruise with 11-year-old Marcus and Penny and 6-year-old June and Sebastian, whom we learn early on is diabetic. The trip is Liv’s idea to cheer up her friend Nora following the death of her mum.
With the central cast established, we switch to Noemi, a 10-year-old living in a shanty town with her gran. Noemi serves to remind us of the poverty and drug crime that can be such a feature in parts of Latin America. It emerges that gran can no longer look after Noemi and she’s being passed to her ‘uncle’ Chuy who is going to smuggle her to her parents in New York.
Meanwhile, the happy families have teamed up with a third set of voyagers, Argentinians Gunther and Camila and their children, Hector and pubescent Isabela. Over dinner Gunther arranges a golf outing for the guys during a stopover in Colombia, leaving the others to join a trip offered as one of the cruise company attractions.
As the golfing trio set off, the handsome Pedro arrives by mini bus to collect the others. Almost immediately things go wrong as an accident leaves them stranded in the sweltering heat. Pedro suggests a jaunt to the beach but no sooner do they arrive at a lovely bay than Pedro and Nora disappear into the forest for a spot of ‘bird watching’. The children set to playing in the water as the other two women fall asleep.
The children are swept upriver only to find themselves on a crocodile infested bank. Brave Hector swims back for help but the others frightened by the crocs wander off and stumble upon a couple who promptly kidnap them and take them to a house in the mountains owned by two drug dealing brothers.
Not surprisingly the comfortable lives of these weakly drawn adults, for whom it’s hard to feel any empathy, begin to disintegrate. Nora is consumed with guilt about her ‘bird watching’. Liv and Camila are quick to blame her, Pedro and the husbands who deserted them.
There’s predictable concern about Sebastian’s health, which is partly addressed when he’s treated by a nervous doctor who is indeed a junkie. Slowly parts of the children’s character emerge: Penny is a sullen, demanding child, Isabela a sultry but confused adolescent and Marcus a smart youngster on the autistic spectrum.
The parents are holed up in a hotel as the police probe parts of their lives. What was that misdemeanour that Liv’s husband has been keeping quiet? The press lay siege to the parents of ‘Los ninos del barco’.
Vaguely sketched characters pop up with regularity to keep the plot going, so we briefly meet Consuelo, the widow of the man being buried when the children stumble upon their kidnappers and there’s Kenji Kirby, an archetypal smoothie from the American Embassy, who will provide a great role when they make the TV movie. Finally we meet the housekeeper Maria. Is she the children’s route to salvation?
This book is all too predictable and takes too long to get going but eventually the author gallops towards her ending almost as if she’d suddenly remembered an urgent deadline.
I read it during the course of the General Election and found it a simple diversion from the stresses of the campaign. If you’re going on holiday and want one last, easy read which demands virtually no effort, I recommend it.