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The Heart Broke in by James Meek

Meek, a former journalist at the Guardian, came to my attention with his strange but wonderful Russian novel, The People’s Act of Love which he started writing in the mid 1990s but wasn’t published until 2005, and subsequently longlisted for the Booker prize. The People’s Act was set in 1919 Siberia and featured a strange religious cult and a sociopathic escaped prisoner – I loved it. I’ve not read his other novels, which are totally different in settings, but jumped at a chance to read his new one, hoping for more enigmatic writing…

The Heart Broke In tackles the subject of sibling rivalry, primarily seen through the eyes of Ritchie Shepherd, a rock star turned TV producer, and his sister Bec a malaria researcher. Sibling rivalry might sound a small theme, but this is a big novel, and Meek takes an expansive as well as microscopic examination of the lives of Ritchie and Bec by looking through the lens of love and betrayal…

Ritchie used to be guitarist in a rock’n’roll band, Lazygods, together with his wife Karin. Now, they live in a big house with their two lovely children, and Ritchie the successful producer of an X-Factor for teens style show.

Ritchie was at the Rika Films studios before eight next day. By mid-morning shivers of panic were rippling through the building. One of the acts, a band of fourteen-year-olds from Rotherham called The What, had shown such rapid improvement from the original audition that the team was convinced it had been swindled. As it stood the kids sounded too professional to be put on the show and they’d been brought into the studio early to get them to recapture their previous, possibly fake, hopelessness.

I wonder how true that is?  Apart from production troubles, there’s a hotly denied rumour going around that Ritchie has been seeing a fifteen year old. Well, he was, but he finished it – it cost him around £30k.  Very sad, very rock’n’roll, very of the zeitgeist. You just know that it will come back to bite him eventually.

Whilst Ritchie’s life is constrained by family and job, his younger sister Bec has no such ties now.  She was going out with Val, the Editor of a red-top newspaper, but when he got too serious she called it off. A medical researcher, she’s a free spirit, going where her work takes her. Then she makes a discovery that is going to curb her freedom a little. In Africa, She finds a microscopic parasite that gives partial immunity to malaria. She infects herself – only trouble is that uncontrolled, the parasite causes spells of temporary blindness.

Bec compounds her medical success by falling in love with Alex – a medical researcher making breakthroughs in stem cell treatments for cancer. Alex just happens to have been the drummer in Ritchie’s first band – he still drums his fingers all the time, ‘as an elaborate form of fidgeting, it helped him think.’

Science’s golden couple make big news, eclipsing Ritchie, who’s also taken aback by finding out that it was Karin the fans worshipped in the Lazygods.  Alex has family problems of his own, he works for his Uncle Harry who is dying of cancer, and Harry is leaving everything to Alex, rather than his own son Matt who is too God-fearing for him, and this is complicated by the arrival of his layabout brother Dougie down from Glasgow on the scene. Meanwhile, Alex is desperate for a baby with Bec, and it’s just not happening. It builds up so there are just too many secrets, lies and barriers to communication in Ritchie and Bec’s families. The dam is going to break and they are forced to choose between love and betrayal.

I particularly enjoyed reading about Bec – she was mesmerising as a character, serene, slightly aloof in a good way, independent, and then there was the whole self-experimentation thing – foolhardy or brave? A bit of both, I’d wager. The science could have got quite difficult, but Meek has a light touch with it and although I’m not a biologist, it all felt very authentic and well-researched.

The personality of Ritchie too, despite all his faults, is sympathetically drawn. He is on the verge of a mid-life crisis at the beginning of the book, and you do want to find out what’s going to happen. Schadefreude, yes, but also hope that he can pull himself together.

There is a huge amount more to the brother and sister relationship – what happened to their father in particular, and Alex’s family too, that I’ve not mentioned above. The dynamics are complicated – and reminded me somewhat of The Blasphemer by Nigel Farndale, which also has a science and TV background and explores complex emotions.  Both books are solid and totally gripping, full of moral dilemmas. I really enjoyed this novel. It’s a big read in all senses. (9/10)

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I received a review copy via Amazon Vine. To explore further, please click below:
The Heart Broke in by James Meek, pub Aug 2012 by Canongate. Hardback, 550 pages.
The People’s Act of Love by James Meek
The Blasphemer by Nigel Farndale

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