I’ve just finished reading Playing Dead, by Julia Heaberlin. It’s set in Texas and is an unusual novel.
In the first place, it has a fairly transparent plot; the reader knows almost from the beginning what happened to the heroine and her family in the past and therefore why they are now in danger (I won’t spoil it by giving away more), but there is also a surprise twist near the end which this reader, at least, failed to suspect until it was revealed.
Secondly, if it were to be categorised (which is not necessarily an exercise that I would encourage), it would be dubbed a ‘woman at risk’ crime novel. However, Tommie McCloud, the heroine, is feisty, tough and ready to take on any adversary. She is certainly not presented as a lamb ready for the slaughter. Sometimes we are even made to dislike her brash take on events. She does not conform to stereotype in other ways: although her family is wealthy, her taste in clothes is outré and her sister’s even more extreme; the sister, a single mother, lives in a trailer and feeds her child (or her child feeds her) on junk food; their mother, who dies early in the novel but whose presence permeates it throughout, is proved to have been not so much a wronged woman as ‘no better than she should have been’ in her youth. The author is not making a moral point here: she intends us to like these people and it is a tribute to her skill as a writer that we do.
The knock-on result of her subtle depiction of the characters and the tangled web of circumstances that they manage to weave is that the bad guys and the good guys do not separate into two clear camps. Julia Heaberlin therefore keeps the reading guessing, not about the plot, but about how these complex yet lightly-drawn people will eventually gather enough answers about the past to enable them to launch themselves into the future; or alternatively, in one or two cases, forfeit the future because of the way in which they have behaved in the past. She establishes that there is a tipping point between good and evil; most of the characters in the novel could fall on either side of it.
Playing Dead is a serious novel which wears its seriousness lightly. It is a beautifully-written, entertaining read, on the surface of it not demanding, a book which you might take to bed when suffering from a cold or a hangover. It makes some profound statements about the human condition, but with a lightness of touch that at times verges on the tongue-in-cheek.
It is a debut novel, in the UK a Faber publication. I shall certainly look out for her next, Lie Still, due out this year. In the meantime, I recommend Playing Dead wholeheartedly to readers of this blog.