The Dinner Party by Rebecca Heath

Reviewed by Rod McLary

Parents at a dinner party, their children left at home alone: what could go wrong?  Well, almost everything.

One evening in December 1979, four couples in a brand-new suburb gather together for their weekly dinner party.  Those who have children are comfortable with leaving them at home as the neighbourhood is safe, the parents all know each other, and the fathers take turns to check on the children through the evening.  But strong drink is taken – and perhaps some illicit substances – which means the vigilance is not quite as rigorous as it should be.

On one check, an empty cot is found and Megan Callaghan aged four months has disappeared.  Her older sister ten-year-old Amanda is still there but is mute with shock.  Forty years later, perhaps in reparation for her inability to protect Megan that fateful night, Amanda is still searching for answers.

Thus begins this psychological thriller as Amanda does not – and will not – believe that Megan is dead but instead is out there waiting to be found.  Then someone claiming to be Megan turns up.  Her appearance raises more questions than answers as some of Amanda’s family are sceptical about this person who claims to be Megan; especially Amanda’s older daughter Billie who has been through this before and knows how distressed and disappointed her mother will be when ‘Megan’ turns out to be no more than an opportunist.

But this ‘Megan’ seems to know a lot about the family including details not generally known by others.  In her efforts to protect her mother from further hurt, Billie attempts to discover what really happened that night of the dinner party.

To provide background to Megan’s disappearance, the author has rather cleverly introduced the concept of a podcast which begins with I’m Ruby Costa and this is The Callaghan Baby Podcast.  Along with my team, I’ve been investigating a forty-year-old cold case  [1].  The imaginative use of this now common device allows for the background to be set out comprehensively and chronologically along with many interviews with all the key players: family, neighbours and police.  The podcast takes us from the beginning to the current play of events.

But behind the facts, there are the lies and obfuscations perpetrated and maintained for forty years by each of the eight people present at the ill-fated dinner party.  All have something to hide and – to themselves at least – justifiable reasons for not disclosing the truth even if the lies cause further pain and distress to those closest to the missing child.

Rebecca Heath has crafted a tense domestic thriller which relies to some extent on the realisation that such a traumatic event could happen to any one of us.  Who among us has not been tempted to duck out for a few minutes leaving a sleeping child alone?  Fortunately most of us don’t succumb to the temptation and our children remain safe.  But one strength of the novel is that the circumstances are so immediately recognisable; and it makes for a psychologically tense narrative.

The Dinner Party is a great read – perfect for a summer’s day.

Rebecca Heath lives in Adelaide and this is her second novel; the first being The Summer Party.

The Dinner Party

[2024]

by Rebecca Heath

Bloomsbury

ISBN 978 180454 609 3

$32.99; 384pp

 

 

 

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