Given the massively popular and critical success of Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up The Bodies, it was inevitable perhaps that The Heart Broke In did not win the Costa Award; however, it was a worthy contender, sharing the range of the great and very ambitious Russian family sagas of the 19th and 20th centuries. James Meek may be better known as a journalist but, at 548 pages, his novel asks important questions about how we live today; it is a morality tale for the 21st century.
The central characters, Ritchie and Bec Shepherd, are siblings. Their father was tortured to death by the IRA when Ritchie and Bec were teenagers because he would not name an informer. Ritchie is an ageing pop star, turned TV producer of a youth talent show, “Teen Makeover”. Married to his former band’s singer, and with two young children, Ritchie should be contented with life. However, his vanity will not permit him to be satisfied. At the opening of the novel, he frets over how to end an affair with a fifteen year-old contestant on the show, in order to avoid detection, not the least by his wife. His egocentricity and self-indulgence are such that he is blind to his real motivations, which often require him to be seen to be doing good, rather than actually doing good; what he really desires is to be in the limelight.
Bec, a scientist, is attempting to find a cure for malaria. Hard-working, honest and honourable, she serves as a foil for her narcissistic brother. As her profile begins to rise through her work, she blunders into a relationship with Val, a psychotic newspaper editor, whose chagrin when she ends their affair leads to a series of potentially ruinous moral challenges for her family. Although Bec is a sensitively-drawn character, she can be rather difficult to sympathise with. Meek seems unable to get inside the “open mind” of Bec and as a result the reader faces similar difficulties in relating to the character.
However, the novel introduces an array of expertly-drawn characters whose values and motivations are often surprising. Meek seems to relish subverting the reader’s conventional expectations. Harry, a larger-than-life cancer specialist saves the life of a homosexual dog couturier. but instead of reacting as we might expect, Harry, ironically, buys a dog to fit the designer dog coat and becomes genuinely attached to his new pet. We might expect a character such as Harry to be homophobic and contemptuous of the man’s chosen career, but he is not. This seems to be at odds with the self-righteousness that drives Harry to attempt to convert his grandchildren to atheism, while the children’s parents, staunch Christians, have their own utterly ruthless brand of selfishness with regard to family inheritances.
Meanwhile, Harry’s nephew (or perhaps his son, as the novel implies) Alex falls in love with Bec. Alex is the only character whose motivations and actions are straightforward and uncompromised. He acts as a moral Pole Star in the increasingly convoluted world of research science.
I liked the way that this novel can be funny and deeply serious at the same time, sometimes in the same sentence. The Heart Broke In is a Vanity Fair for the globalised, late-capitalist world, homing in on the tawdriness of mediated British society. Each of the main protagonists makes questionable moral choices; no one is left unscarred, neither are they irredeemably damned in this sweeping manifesto for love. Even the execrable Val shows a glimmer of compassion, though his motives for doing so are unclear. His media organisation, the ironically-named “Moral Foundation” uses blackmail to threaten its victims into exposing their loved-ones’ transgressions. When Val turns his attention to Ritchie and Bec, their respective reactions to his threats reveal their essential differences.
The novel turns satire in on itself, effortlessly forcing the reader to revise their expectations and beliefs. Don’t take anything for granted here regarding the author’s position. He holds life up like a moral kaleidoscope and watches how the patterns form and reform.