Most of us, even in this country, do not lead lives untouched by disaster. We are every day at the mercy of random events, of other people, and once in a while, our worlds are attacked and restructured by circumstances we can never hope to control. We rarely deserve our luck, good or bad, and when we do, it doesn’t always come because we’ve earned it. It’s easy, and probably adaptive, to ignore all of this, to tend our gardens and avert our eyes from the threats we can do nothing about. But we’re eternally vulnerable, and all of us will suffer. So says the universe, and so says author Maile Meloy, who sounds the alarm in her latest novel, “Do Not Become Alarmed.”
Liv and Nora, cousins and best friends, take a holiday cruise with their husbands and children, departing Los Angeles and winding down the coast of Mexico and Central America. It’s a harmless enough choice — Liv dispenses with her environmental concerns with “a little shudder of guilt” — that opens the way for everything that follows. “That was something [Liv] was trying to work on: not always second-guessing her decisions, wondering if she’d made the wrong one. But how could you know if you’d made the right decision, when you only saw one version play out?”
The version that plays out is not one that anyone would have chosen. As the result of several accidents and blunders and minor lapses in judgment, Liv and Nora’s children, aged between 6 and 11, go missing during a shore excursion, along with the two teenage children of an Argentine couple they befriend on the cruise. The novel is told from multiple points of view, alternating between the adults and the children as they scramble to find one another.
The sky having fallen, the adults try to make sense of their situation, judging and blaming each other and themselves. Though the disappearance was unforeseeable — involving, among other misfortunes, a car crash, a wanton tide and a shallow grave — every step leading up to it gets full scrutiny. A golf outing and a nap on the beach become retroactively sinful; at one point, Nora snaps at Liv, “It was your … terrible idea, the whole cruise.”
The karmic bus had mowed her down. She was being punished for living in a false world, spongy and insulated from the reality around her.
Liv is the pragmatic one, more rational than her cousin, but she understands as well as anyone the need to apportion blame. “If she had seen these parents on TV, these parents who had lost their children on a cruise, she would have thought how irresponsible they were, how careless. No one deserved such a fate, of course, but she would have judged them, and found them wanting.”
Meanwhile, the children have to make their own decisions, any one of which might mean life or death, without much visibility on the outcomes of their choices. There’s no way to know whether it’s better to swim for help or search for passing motorists; sometimes the river is infested with crocodiles, the motorists dangerous drug dealers. What then? Which is worse? The children all start on the same boat, but their fates diverge dramatically and almost at random, the line between near-catastrophe and catastrophe entirely out of their control.
Meloy seems to see a particular American smugness in the sense of safety violated by the events of this cruise. Gunther, the Argentine father, “had come to despise the American parents, who thought nothing terrible could happen to them, even in these days of debt and war and warming seas, much of it visited on the world by their own rich, childish country. They did not even know what they did not know.”
Liv tends to agree: “The karmic bus had mowed her down. She was being punished for living in a false world, spongy and insulated from the reality around her. For living in a house with an alarm system, in a neighborhood where the only Latinos were gardeners and day laborers. For sending her kids to a private school that was almost entirely white in a city that wasn’t.” During their journey, the children meet a young girl from Ecuador making the perilous crossing to the States — one of many kids facing danger alongside them, invisible and unexceptional, while their disappearance is an international incident.
“Do Not Become Alarmed” is a bit glib to be an incisive social novel. With the narrative voice switching between so many characters, not all of them are fully fleshed out, and the ones who are are the white women. Nora’s husband, Raymond, is a beautiful, perfect black man who loves his flawed white wife, and there isn’t much more to him; her biracial daughter is a child who is mostly characterized by her flying braids. The criticism of white American arrogance cuts about as deep as the usual white American self-flagellation, the apologies issued from center stage.
But Meloy didn’t write a manifesto; she wrote a page-turner, prioritizing action, delivering a wild, propulsive plot with tight prose and a constant current of suspense. It’s a thrilling novel, well constructed and hard to put down, a sharp reminder that the tide can take us anywhere, even when the water looks fine.
Cha is the author, most recently, of “Dead Soon Enough.”
Riverhead: 352 pp., $27