Book Review: The Heart Keeper by Alex Dahl

The Heart Keeper

Alex Dahl

July 16, 2019

The Heart Keeper by Alex Dahl centers on two families: one reeling from the untimely loss of their beloved daughter, and the other who have found a new beginning thanks to a miracle—a new heart. 

We’re going to go away together, you and I, I think to myself, and I have to stop myself from saying the words out loud—Kaia can’t know just yet. But in these moments, what had been a vague idea in my mind begins to take on the solid contours of a plan.”

To read this passage which represents the thought pattern of one of the novels leads makes you believe you are in the presence of a dangerous obsessive type. That is the conundrum of Alex Dahl‘s terrific novel, The Heart Keeper. In short, it involves a mother deeply grieving the loss of her 5-year-old daughter in a tragic drowning accident and how she is able to track down the 7-year-old little girl who benefited from the donation of her heart.

The Heart Keeper is one of the best novels I have read in 2019 and I found it nearly impossible to tear away from. Reading the novel’s description on the back makes you think that things will go the way of many other stories and films that dealt with a dangerous obsession. The problem here is that Nordic author Dahl has written this novel so well that her decidedly complex characters are impossible to root against.  It is quite hard to not feel for Alison, the grieving mother in a faltering marriage with not much to live for.

This novel is dedicated to organ donors everywhere. However, The Heart Keeper isn’t as much a novel that champions organ donation. Rather, it introduces a concept I had not seen covered before in fiction—the notion of cell memory. Could the recipient of an organ donation begin to take on the personality of the unknown donor? The novel recounts several examples, which are probably based on actual cases, that indicates cell memory may be a reality. This novel is narrated primarily by two mothers—Alison, the mother who blames herself for the drowning death of young Amalie, and Iselin, whose own young daughter, Kaia, is in need of a heart transplant to save her from dying due to the malformed heart she was born with.

Alison has seen her family life pretty much destroyed by the death of Amalie. Her husband, Sindre, also suffers from severe PTSD as a result of his time in the military and spends some of this novel in a hospital helping him get through a dangerous and near-fatal attack of rage while out hunting with friends. Alison’s step-son, Oliver, is a teenager who is starting to date and does not really want to hang out with his part-time family. Ironically, Oliver is the one who researches organ donations and proposes the idea of cell memory. He also points Alison in the direction of locating the child who received Amalie’s heart.

Iselin’s daughter, Kaia, has been slowly recovering and getting used to life with a new heart. She still wakes up almost nightly from discomfort as well as thoughts and visions that seem to be coming from another little girl. Iselin is a single mother and struggling artist, trying to make ends meet and relying on the help of her sister, Noa, with raising Kaia. It gets quite uncomfortable when Kaia begins dreaming about drowning. When Alison identifies Kaia as the recipient of Amalie’s heart, she plots ways to thrust herself into their lives. Alison, a former journalist before her loss, finds samples of Iselin’s artwork online and contacts her on the premise of wanting to see some of her work for a potential purchase.

It starts innocently enough with Alison buying a few of Iselin’s prints. Then, Alison sets up an interview for Iselin with the magazine she last wrote for—and she gets the job. The focus, of course, quickly becomes young Kaia, and Alison promptly becomes the go-to babysitter for her. For Alison, little Kaia becomes the heart keeper, and the longer she spends time with her more she believes her little girl has come back—and this time, Alison will see that nothing pulls them apart.

The Heart Keeper is so well written that it begs to be treated as top-notch literary fiction rather than a psychological thriller. Regardless of the genre where it may fit, this novel is one that readers will have a hard time forgetting and provides a deep, moral issue that should produce a lot of soul-searching and serious discussion.

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