The Heart Broke In, by James Meek, Canongate, RRP£17.99 / Farrar, Straus and Giroux, RRP$20, 550 pages
With his 2005 novel The People’s Act of Love, James Meek, a former foreign correspondent in Russia, earned comparisons with Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Meek’s dark story, set during the turmoil of post-revolution Siberia and featuring cannibalism and castration, garnered a clutch of literary prizes and a place on the Man Booker prize long list. Three years later, We Are Now Beginning Our Descent, about a war correspondent in Afghanistan who dreams of writing bestselling fiction, was similarly well-received.
In his new novel, Meek evokes the contemporary bohemian hinterlands of London. The Heart Broke In is an absorbing family saga with Forsterian ambitions, pitting sibling against sibling, idealism against materialism, religion against humanism and the rigours of science against the inanities and seductive lies of popular culture.
Ritchie and Bec Shepherd are the adult children of a British army officer who was killed by the IRA in Northern Ireland in the 1970s for refusing to betray an informer. Brother and sister are now successful in their respective, very different fields: he is a former rock star and current TV talent show producer; she is a research scientist seeking a cure for malaria. Ritchie’s promotion of crowd-pleasing mediocrity is richly rewarded – rock-chick wife, two decorative small children and a country pile brimming with luxury goods. For the unselfconsciously beautiful Rebecca, who often sleeps over in her lab, spends extended periods of privation doing fieldwork in Papua New Guinea and Africa and has had a patchier personal life, children haven’t come up.
Meek is very good on Ritchie the eternal boy, who uses a tricycle to propel himself around his lofty den with its fridge full of beer and individual chocolate puddings, its vintage red phone box concealing a lavatory, his collection of British war comics and the pair of specially commissioned, mother-of-pearl inlaid guitars. Unplayed, of course. All impulses are gratified, including those for illicit sex, and he persuades himself that he keeps his infidelities secret for selfless reasons: “It bothered Ritchie that people lied to protect themselves. He only lied to protect his family.”
A tabloid newspaper also plays a part in the story. Its editor might easily have made an appearance before the Leveson inquiry, indicted for promoting moral hysteria and specialising in bullying, blackmail, hypocrisy and the artificial inflation (and then destruction) of reputations. Despite her reservations, Bec begins to date the editor of this rabid London tabloid. But once he proposes marriage, she dumps him and returns to the solitary pleasures of the lab, where she demonstrates her commitment to her work by choosing to get infected by a parasite that may offer some protection against malaria, but carries its own risks. Science, immunology and parasitology carry a symbolic weight that sometimes threatens to up-end the novel but Meek’s lucid prose and wry observations propel the reader onwards.
Many of the novel’s most satisfying moments involve its minor characters: Ritchie and Bec’s mother, a muddle-headed expat New Ager, chain-smoking while doggedly following fad diets in Spain; the apparently unrepentant IRA man who killed Captain Shepherd, now living with his mother in a Dublin council flat and writing bad poetry to pass the time. A pair of wacky Stanford professors with an unappetising open marriage present comic opportunities, while the sombre story of Batini, Bec’s Tanzanian housekeeper whose child contracts malaria, is the most affecting part of the book; a perfectly drawn, self-contained tragedy in three and a half pages.
If the book has a hero, beyond the shade of Captain Shepherd, it is Harry Comrie, a maverick old scientist, wracked by the cancer he has sought all his working life to conquer, his rationalism pitted against the beliefs of his Christian fundamentalist son. It is Harry’s nephew Alex, also a scientist – a one-time drummer in Ritchie’s band – who offers Bec the possibility of love and seems to unite the two worlds of the Shepherd siblings. But Bec and Ritchie soon learn that hell hath no fury like a tabloid journalist spurned and, threatened with public disgrace, they are invited to commit squalid personal betrayals and even to dishonour the memory of their dead father.
In other, less capable hands, a fictional attempt to address and link these issues of moral complexity – to achieve the Forsterian “connection” – might prove overly schematic. But in this compelling novel Meek, with his vivid characterisation and narrative drive, succeeds in engaging the heart as well as the head.
Annalena McAfee is author of ‘The Spoiler’ (Vintage)