Playing Dead, by Julia Heaberlin
Playing Dead is a claustrophobic, sweltering novel that places the readers firmly in the author’s native Texas. Cowgirl and ex-Rodeo star Tommie McCloud – headstrong and fiercely independent – has come back to Texas to bury her father after many years away. Returning to her childhood home, she finds amongst the condolences a mysterious letter that throws everything she believed about her family into doubt. The writer, wife of an infamous mob boss, claims to be Tommie’s mother, stating that she was kidnapped as a baby 30 years before. Disbelieving but curious, Tommie finds herself drawn into a web of deceit, increasingly paranoid and not knowing who around her to trust. As the secrets are slowly revealed, she finds that the lives of herself and her family are put at risk as she is chased from all sides.
Heaberlin’s writing is wonderfully evocative, with the Texan heat always palpable; at times comforting Tommie as things spiral out of control, while at others becoming something more sinister and overbearing. The state is a central component to the plot, having a huge bearing on the characters themselves, on the way they act and react to events around them. Occasionally, however, it feels as if characterisation has been placed second to building up this evocative landscape, leaving some of the characters seeming somewhat stereotypical and lacking the human.
The author has created very distinctive voices for Tommie and all of the others around her, helping move the first-person narrative along comfortably. However, she is slightly formulaic; a damaged but fierce blonde with a gun, who wants to be the heroine of her own life, and whose own neuroses and insecurities get in the way of personal relationships. It is a criticism that can be levelled at the novel on the whole too, with some of the bonds between characters seeming more like a template than something human and believable. This is particularly the case with Tommie’s relationship with an ex-soldier with whom she has a history, and who always seems to be on hand to save her. As well as being somewhat formulaic, this somewhat undermines Tommie’s strong character.
This ultimately lets the novel down; the clichéd characters dampen the impact of what is a decent plot. Despite this, Playing Dead is a fast-paced read, with many twists and turns that will keep the reader guessing to the end.