James Meek is one of those perennially praised, never quite garlanded writers who must get thoroughly bored of reading how awful it is that he’s not better known and more successful. The Heart Broke In, his fifth novel, like those that came before, is built on the solid foundations of deeply satisfying plotting and precision-tooled prose.
The Heart Broke In might best be described as a compressed family saga – it’s got a generous cast of characters, all fanning out from the central brother-sister duo of Ritchie, an arrogant rock star-turned-TV producer, and Bec, a scientist so obsessed with finding a cure for malaria that she’s injected herself with a virus that might offer protection, though it brings the side effect of occasional, temporary sight loss.
Let me stop here to mention that the book is full of temporary attacks of moral blindness, and that Ritchie’s TV show, Teen Makeover, which effectively speeds up children’s ageing process, is an inverted reflection of the dilemma facing another major character, Bec’s boyfriend’s uncle, Henry, an eminent cancer scientist ironically struck down with a cancer outside his area of expertise who has only months to live. These are just two examples of the kind of thematic echo and inversion that abound in the book.
You might say that the novel is a cross between a laboratory experiment into the ethics of contemporary Western society and a game of chess. Meek organises his characters in an endlessly fresh and productive procession of situations, just to see which way they will jump. An example: would you, for instance, forgive the IRA terrorist who executed your father, a British solider, during the Troubles? And what if the terrorist was now a man of peace, a poet even? (And would it matter if the poems were any good?) And what if meeting and forgiving him would make a fantastic TV programme, what then? (And would it, in fact, matter how good the TV show was?)
Again, this is just an example. With its dozens of characters, and large number of short chapters, the novel presents conundrums like this that simply seem to spring effortlessly from Meek’s imagination. And all presented, as I say, in top-notch prose. Here’s family man Ritchie, thinking about his children and wife: “Apart from Ruby and Dan, Karin’s happiness was more important to him that anything. That was why he would do whatever he could to protect her from the knowledge that he was having sex with someone else.”
There’s a quote on the front of the paperback by Philip Pullman, who calls it “a moral thriller”, which is true – it is a page-turner; you do want to know which way Ritchie, and Bec, and all the others, will jump; you can be sure that, when they land, another conundrum will be there waiting for them – but perhaps it points to a weakness, too.
Individually, no one moral dilemma feels like a manipulation. Taken all together, they move the novel beyond the bounds of social probability. Most of the novel takes place over little more than a year, and we’re talking EastEnders levels of moral jumps and reversals in that time.
You might whisper, too, that some of the minor characters slip close to caricature: the evil tabloid editor who takes revenge on Bec for turning down his offer of marriage; Henry’s ultra-orthodox Christian son and his family. You might lament a certain loss of texture, compared to Meek’s last novel, We Are Now Beginning Our Descent – there is nothing here to match the gut-wrenchingly visceral intensity of that book’s dinner party scene… I urge you to read it, but I certainly recommend you read this book too. To rephrase Philip Pullman, it’s the thinking person’s poolside read.