When Tommie McCloud, prodigal daughter, returns home to Texas for the funeral of her father, she finds more than sympathy waiting for her. She finds a letter from a stranger in Chicago, Illinois. The stranger believes Tommie may be her daughter, kidnapped over thirty years ago.
The woman Tommie always believed to be her mother has been trapped inside her own head for years now, suffering from early-onset dementia. If Tommie is going to unearth the truth about her family tree, she is going to have to investigate for herself. At some point in life we probably all have fantasies that we're actually living a lie. We aren't really who we think we are. But for Tommie discovering the Chicago stranger is the wife of a convicted killer is only the beginning of her trip through a labyrinth of nightmares and lies. Will discovering the truth ultimately destroy her or set her free?
PLAYING DEAD has just earned a ticket to the top of my favorite debuts of 2012 list. While the plot concept is not a new one (how many really are?) the puzzling structure, compelling characters, rich atmosphere and dazzling imagery all add up to a stimulating page-turner of a thriller.
The novel is told in first person from the perspective of Tommie, a character composite of contradictions. Tommie was a champion rodeo roper and a classical music student when both paths were cut off by a overzealous steer.
"I would describe myself as temporarily off-course ever since eight hundred pounds of steer stomped on my wrist fourteen years ago in a rodeo arena in Lubbock, Texas, knocking me from the pedestal of my saddle into mortality."
Tommie is simultaneously courageous and independent while also vulnerable and reliant. In other words, she's real. Julia Heaberlin surrounds Tommie with a supporting cast as dynamic as her protagonist: the eccentric younger sister who, despite a substantial wealth, lives in a double-wide trailer, decorated in spray-paint swirls; a hard-ass, security contractor ex-boyfriend who exudes Texas machismo, which is ironically dependent on a heart relatively the size of, well, Texas; a seemingly crazy mobster's wife; a reporter who doesn't really act like a reporter and a journalist who fits the stereotype almost to a T.
For me the most stunning element of PLAYING DEAD is Heaberlin's atmosphere. She doesn't use setting as a character per se, but rather the setting is very much a part of each of her characters. Heaberlin has a special talent for helping her readers feel it as much as her characters do:
"I've been told that growing up in Ponder must have been an idyllic childhood, picket fence and all. I tell those people I'm more familiar with barbed wire and have the scars on my belly to prove it."
About that same place she says,
"But home is also endless rolling land, shimmering heat, sweet memories that thrum in the air with the cicadas. Home pulls at me like a magnet. Even when my body is hundreds of miles away, my soul stays behind, clinging to the live oak by the cement pond where I learned to dog paddle."
When Tommie leaves the land she knows best, Heaberlin helps her readers experience the urban setting as Tommie does:
"I stepped out of the hotel onto the pedestrian traffic on Michigan Avenue, which was vibrating with aggression to the ranch girl like me. A bike messenger cursed and swerved when I stepped into his path; a grinning homeless person punched me, hard, on the arm; a swinging briefcase rapped one of my knuckles, all before I reached a café a couple of blocks from the hotel. The businessman with the briefcase kept on walking and barking into his headset. In Texas, I would have would up with an apology and maybe even a date."
Just as the setting threads its fingers into the creation of Heaberlin's characters, so does her sarcastic, sometimes caustic humor. She's able to find the humor in some of the darkest elements of the plot, some of the most serious characters of the story, even some of the most beautiful elements of the setting:
"We passed lush, rolling lawns, every blade of grass the same color and height, as if a band of Oompa Loompas used a paintbrush and manicure scissors each morning to maintain perfection."
"'No. Supposably, it's a fact.' The word supposably always set my teeth on edge. It was a Texas colloquialism used by a quarter of the state. It's probably in the dictionary now a few skips ahead of Sarah Palin's refudiate."
"'When you have five hours,' she said, 'I'll tell you how I have about three-fourths of an ounce of Tom Cruise's blood running in my veins.' She grinned. 'Enough to brag about at parties but not enough to drop Jesus for Scientology.'"
Heaberlin obviously loves language and knows how to use it - to entertain, to awe, to frighten, to connect. PLAYING DEAD is a debut you aren't going to want to miss. I see a very bright future for Julia Heaberlin.
PLAYING DEAD is available in trade paperback from Ballantine Books (ISBN: 9780345527011) and also on audio from AudioGo, narrated by Madeleine Lambert.
My review of PLAYING DEAD is part of the TLC blog tour and they were nice enough to provide a copy for me to give away to a lucky reader. So, if you'd like a chance to win this one, tell me in the comments one thing you'd miss most about where you live if you had to leave.
The contest is open to anyone with a mailing address (no P.O. boxes) in the US or Canada. I'll take entries through Friday. Good luck.
And congratulations to Jen (who has a great name) and blogs at Crazy for Books. She won GONE GIRL from last week's contest.