By Leslie Lindsay
Delightfully dark tale about two mothers and one little girl; about anger, grief, sadness, and more as the after-effects of organ donation.
THE HEART KEEPER (Berkley, July 16 2019) is a raw, gut-wrenching read from critically acclaimed thriller writer, Alex Dahl (THE BOY AT THE DOOR, 2018). This harrowingly, gritty read follows a grief-stricken mother who is desperately trying to seek a way to overcome the pain of losing her beloved only child, Amalie, who drowned. Alison becomes disturbingly fixated on a the life of a small girl who becomes the donor recipient of her daughter’s heart. She feels she can reconnect with her own daughter by becoming close to this little girl.
On the surface, Alison is an affluent middle-aged mother (to step-son), Oliver, and appears to have it all together–gleaming luxury SUV and attractive husband, nice home. But she doesn’t have her daughter. She would do anything to get her back. We fall down a grim hole of mysterious interest and sinister intentions. Grief is a strange thing–it will cause even the most ‘typical’ person to come unraveled.
Told in alternating POVs–between that of Alison and the donor girl’s mother, Iselin, the narrative flow is intriguing, capturing the raw elements of psych suspense, literary fiction, and medical mysteries. The writing is raw, authentic, and I felt a deep visceral and emotional pull. All events coalesced in an inevitable manner, which impressed and captured me. I was particularly drawn to the sections of the human heart, and overall science of organ donation–though this is only a portion of the book. The focus is on how far will one grieving mother go to recapture the love and connection she once had with her daughter.
Alex Dahl is half-American, half-Norwegian haling from Oslo, and she brings her background to the page as she paints a stunning Scandinavian backdrop in this darkly twisted tale.
Please join me in welcoming Alex Dahl.
Alex, wow! Welcome. I loved THE HEART KEEPER. It’s raw, authentic, and moving and places the reader in the position of, ‘what would you do.’ I am curious what propelled you to write this story—why now?
Thank you! I loved reading your review. The idea for THE HEART KEEPER came to me very insistently when I was actually in the early stages of planning another novel, and I knew I just had to change my plans and write this book. I wanted to write something that really moved me, and initially, it was the rawness and darkness of Alison’s sections that spoke to me the most. With time, as the novel really began to take shape, I began to understand why- this was personal, and writing THE HEART KEEPER forced me to finally face a very traumatic time in my own life- my infant son’s close brush with death.
Grief and motherhood are almost intractably linked. Both can make us do strange things and there is a sense of grief when one becomes a mother—as women—we must give up a part of ourselves to grow this child (if we have biological children) and then we give up part of our lives to raise these children…they eventually leave the home…and so grief and motherhood. Can you talk about that, please?
I think motherhood opens up a vast emotional register for most women. Suddenly, it feels like your actual heart has unhooked itself from its usual place in your chest and taken on the form of this new person, who will live his/her life in a world we know only too well can hold pain and danger. Fear and love are two sides of the same coin, and to love greatly is risking the grief of losing what/whom we love. I can think of no bigger grief than losing a child, or a bigger fear than the fear of that loss. At the same time, our children are, and must be, separate from ourselves, and we have to let them go, trusting the world with the most precious thing we have; our very heart.
I’m a former psych R.N. and so your depiction of Alison’s response to grief is so very accurate, her obsession with this girl and her mother, authentic. The heart and organ donation, I get a little, too. But I am so intrigued by these stories of cell memory now. Can you share a bit of what you learned while researching THE HEART KEEPER?
I did a lot of research into cell memory as I wrote THE HEART KEEPER. There are some truly fascinating stories out there about the profound personality transformations experienced by many recipients post organ donation. One can discuss whether these changes can be ascribed the psychological aftermath of having lived through life-threatening illness and trauma, or whether they can be ascribed the actual influence of donated organs on their recipients. It is interesting to me that a person’s full genetic material is held in every cell in the body. It is this thought that Alison clings to as she develops her bond with Kaia- she is undeniably the host of her daughter’s heart, and every drop of blood in her body passes through the cells of Amalie’s heart.
I also love your interest in art and how it appears on throughout the text in Iselin’s world. She’s a gifted artist with aspirations to make it big in Paris…but well, life got in the way. Can you talk a little about how art heals? And did you have any inspiration yourself for Iselin’s anatomical drawings of the human heart?
I loved writing Iselin’s interest and creation of art. My younger sister Emmanuelle (Emma Dahl, Instagram @emma_dh99) is a vastly talented artist in Paris, and my grandmother was a painter as well as a novelist. While drawing and painting are talents that have unfortunately passed me by, I have grown up around visual arts, in a family of artists. I tend to think in pictures and Iselin’s art was very clear to me- like her, I am fascinated by birds and hearts. I believe that art is one of our most accessible, powerful routes to healing. It is often pain and despair that gives birth to great art and in its creation, some solace and healing is found. To quote Nietzsche:
One must have chaos within oneself to give birth to a dancing star.
I’m curious about your half-Norwegian, half-American background—it sounds as if you’ve traveled all over the world and know several languages. There are American references in THE HEART KEEPER, but Norwegian ones, too. I love that! How have your experiences influenced you as a writer?
My experiences definitely influence me as a writer. On a personal level I feel that my international experience defines me and the way I live. I love discovering new cultures and learning foreign languages, and often use these references in writing fiction. Growing up, I definitely felt like an American in Norway and like a Norwegian in the U.S, and I deliberately gave Alison this outsider perspective in THE HEART KEEPER. I wanted to fully understand and empathize with Alison, and to be able to go all the way into the depths of her despair with her, I gave her quite a few traits and experiences that reflect my own. I am very driven by a desire to discover as much as possible of our beautiful world, and hope to live in more exciting places in the future- experiences which are sure to inform and inspire future writing. My all-round favorite is France, and I know I will live in Paris again at some point. I’d also like to spend extended time in San Francisco, Tel Aviv, Normandy, Vienna, the Alps, and Saint Petersburg.
“This psychological thriller may also be a horror story, but one that feels natural—if utterly unhinged.”
In the backmatter of THE HEART KEEPER, you list several books that have made an impact. I am going to have to add more to my TBR! What else is on your radar this summer and fall in terms of forthcoming literature?
I am very often rather late to the party when it comes to reading- my TBR list is SO long! Recently I read Lullaby [THE NANNY in U.S.] by Leïla Slimani and Great House by Nicole Krauss, both of which I found incredible and affecting. I loved Conversations With Friends by Sally Rooney, too, and am looking forward to reading Normal People this summer. I also want to read Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay, Madame Zero by Sarah Hall, and Landmarks by Robert MacFarlane.
Alex, I could probably ask questions all day. Such a fascinating concept and compelling read. Is there anything I should have asked, but didn’t?
I really enjoyed answering your questions. It feels great to be talking about THE HEART KEEPER! You could ask me what I would do if I wasn’t an author…The answer to that is that I’d be a psychotherapist. I am increasingly interested in psychology and the workings of the human mind. I believe that therapy is an incredible tool for developing a deeper understanding of ourselves and our circumstances. I also love the way therapy and writing compliment and inform each other- it is definitely not unlikely that I’ll pursue a qualification as a creative writing therapist in the future.
For more information, to connect with Alex Dahl via social media, or to purchase a copy of THE HEART KEEPER, please visit:
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Alex Dahl was born in Oslo and is the critically acclaimed author of The Boy at the Door. She graduated with a B.A. in Russian and German linguistics with international studies and went on to complete an M.A. in creative writing at Bath Spa University, followed by an M.S. in business management at Bath University. Alex has published short stories in the U.K. and the U.S. and is a serious Francophile.
You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these websites:
- Facebook: LeslieLindsayWriter
- Twitter: @LeslieLindsay1
- Email: email@example.com
- Instagram: @LeslieLindsay1
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[Cover and author image courtesy of Berkley and used with permission. Author image credit: Nina Rangoy. Artistic photo of cover designed and photographed by L.Lindsay. Follow on Instagram for more like this].