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Broken hearts and fractured morals.

November 7, 2012

In the first chapter of James Meek’s dark new novel, The Heart Broke In, he deliberately wrong foots us with a clever sleight of hand: he convinces us that one of his central characters, record producer Richie, is innocent of the morally and legally reprehensible act that his colleagues secretly suspect him of. But by the end of page three, we discover that Richie is not only capable of this act, but performing it on a regular basis.

This sets the scene for a novel in which various other characters perform various other less-than-worthy acts, most of which engender messy and painful consequences. Because of this, The Heart Broke In—while indisputably an assured and vivid piece of fiction—is also a difficult novel to read. Its central characters are so awful that it becomes hard to care about the increasingly compromised positions they find themselves in; although, as Meek’s gradual machinations slot into place and move towards an inevitably catastrophic conclusion, the narrative tension becomes palpable.

The Heart Broke In is a complex web of love and betrayal, played out against a backdrop of contemporary London, and—briefly—malaria-ravaged Tanzania. Its characters are all connected, either by blood or by circumstance: Meek carefully and cunningly plays his cast of siblings, old friends, colleagues, and former lovers off against one another in a complex unfurling of deceit and desire that can only end badly for most parties involved.

We begin with the aforementioned Richie, once a rock star, now a wealthy and successful record producer with a curious addiction to chocolate pudding pots and an even curiouser belief in his own (imagined) integrity. It’s a trait that remains elusive to everyone but Richie: by not telling his wife, Karin, about his latest affair, he naively believes that he’s keeping his family safe.

Meanwhile, Richie’s sister, Bec, a gifted scientist working on a Malaria vaccine, has just split up with her boyfriend, the creepily fanatic newspaper mogul Val Oatman. When Bec meets Richie’s old friend and bandmate, Alex, another scientist whose work is apparently on the verge of revealing the secret to eternal life (at least, this is what Alex’s Uncle Harry believes), the two begin a relationship.

The stage is set for catastrophe when Val’s bitterness—and his association with a sinister organisation called the Moral Foundation—prompts him to seek revenge on Bec via Ritchie.

Val’s strategy is both cunning and roundabout, and once we learn of it, the narrative branches out to follow Bec’s story, leaving Ritchie—who must slowly grapple with an increasingly grating moral conundrum—to fade into the narrative background, as his sister and her new partner face their own upheavals. As Bec and Alex’s groundbreaking scientific work propels them into the adoring media spotlight (they are ‘science’s golden couple’, presenting a double-whammy of deadly disease cure and possible eternal youth), their struggle to conceive a child threatens to unbalance their domestic equilibrium. In a masterfully orchestrated parallel of personal moral struggle, Bec, like Ritchie, must ultimately confront the conflict between her desire and her loyalty, and face the consequences of her choice.

This conflict between personal desire and the (alleged) greater moral good propels the narrative action. Meek makes it all the more topical by situating it in the context today’s celebrity-obsessed culture: when Alex is given the opportunity to front a TV series about the genetics of ageing, Bec’s response is cynical: ‘“you won’t be a scientist, you’ll be someone who talks about science”’, she admonishes him. ‘“It’s as if people think the highest form of anything in this country’s not doing it, it’s going on television and talking about doing it.”’

In the meantime, the sense of altruism that ostensibly fuels Bec’s and Alex’s work—curing a deadly disease, prolonging human life—falls into sharp contrast beside the complications of their own desire for a child, and the fallout it eventually creates.

Alongside this, Meek skilfully weaves the connecting stories of his ambitiously large cast: Alex’s Uncle Harry, sick and dying and convinced that his nephew can cure him; Alex’s brother Dougie, a sad and drifting soul who falls for Bec, and his devoutly religious cousin, Matthew; and, of course, Ritchie, who must make a choice upon which the narrative’s final climax turns. Layers of want and self-preservation cloak each character’s decisions and motivations: no matter who you are and what you do, Meek seems to be saying, the tables can always turn; trust and loyalty are flimsy tightropes that can only take you so far.

The Heart Broke In gives us a tightly knotted chain of intimate actions and reactions, showing how the doubts and desires that pulse beneath our closest relationships shape the trajectories of our lives. It’s an unflattering portrait of human nature, but also an undeniably compelling and accurate one.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. November 8, 2012 2:14 am

    Your review has peaked my interest. I will have to check this book out, although I feel it might leave me feeling wickedly betrayed if the central characters are so terrible. I couldn’t enjoy The Great Gatsby for that very reason. Thanks for the review!

    • November 9, 2012 8:35 am

      Glad I’ve sparked your interest! I have to admit it took me a while to get into The Heart Broke In because initially I just hated everyone, but it’s just such a well-crafted book that eventually it won me over. Funny, I loved The Great Gatsby, but now that I think about it I didn’t love any of the characters…

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