It would be ugly to watch people poking sticks at a caged rat. It is uglier still to watch rats poking sticks at a caged person. – Jean Harris
Of all the books to spring to mind when reading The Heart Broke In the last one most people would think about would be The Rats by James Herbert but this just shows how my mind works. I don’t actually think there are any rats in The Heart Broke In—there are scientists and laboratories but no lab rats that I can think of. Some of the people are rats of course. One of the weaknesses of the horror genre—especially on film—is that most of the characters are only there as fodder and we really never get to bond with them before they meet their sticky (and these days increasingly imaginative) end at the hands of the serial killer or mutant sheep or whatever. What I liked about Herbert in The Rats is that he spends the first few chapters introducing us to a succession of characters—Harris the teacher, Paula and Mike and baby Karen, Guilfoyle the gay salesman and his protégé Francis—and devotes sufficient time to make us curious about and interested in them … and then he kills them. It is simple and effective. James Meek, although he takes several hundred pages more, does exactly that. Okay he doesn’t kill them but he does make them suffer. He takes us into the lives of Ritchie and Bec and Alex and Harry and Val and their families, friends and colleagues, makes us care about them, then frees the rats and hands out sticks.
Interestingly the first character we meet and get to know is one of the rats. Ritchie Shepherd used to be the lead singer in a rock band call The Lazygods along with his now-wife Karin who was, truth be told, the real creative force behind the group. They have two young children, Ruby and Dan, live in a £3 million Hampshire mansion and are not short of a bob or two. Ritchie produces Teen Makover an X-Factor-type show aimed at, as the title suggests, the teenage demographic and is doing very nicely. What flags him a rat is that he’s having an affair which these days isn’t so uncommon but what makes him especially rodentine is that the girl he’s been sleeping with is still only fifteen. According to an article I read in The Independent a quarter of girls have underage sex but for some reason society gets up in arms if the guy happens to be a bloke in his forties. Although it looks as if Ritchie’s going to be found out—his young daughter discovers the mobile phone through which he arranges his liaisons—miraculously, even after the girl’s mother finds out and confronts him, it still looks as if he’s going to get away with it. He breathes a sigh of relief.
The next thing we know we’re reading about some woman in Africa called Bec who we learn is Ritchie’s sister. She is whatever the opposite of rat might be. She’s a parasitologist and is well on the way to concocting the cure for malaria. During the course of the book she actually finds half a cure and becomes something of a media celebrity on the back of it. When we first encounter her she has a fiancé called Val, a newspaper editor (yes, he’s the next rat) and they are, frankly, something of an odd couple. He’s besotted with her but his feelings are not reciprocated and she’s not even sure how they wound up engaged—“her behaviour outside science seemed quite random to her”—and so she does the right thing. It’s not the worst breakup in the history of mankind but Val takes it badly—very badly. He wants to get back at her but there is simply no dirt on her. She’s a bona fide angel. Rats, however, are known for their intelligence and something she says just before walking out the door gives him an idea:
‘You could have asked me to marry you before you put your hand between my legs,’ she said. ‘You could have asked me to marry you before you kissed me. You talk as if there are rules I should be living by but if there are, you don’t know them any better than I do. I wish there was some kind of moral foundation I could stand on or try to blow up if I didn’t like it but there isn’t one.’ (Italics mine)
Be careful what you wish for. It might come true.
A month later Val invited Ritchie to lunch in his office.
Val’s newspaper is the kind of rightwing tabloid which relishes in naming and shaming "immigrants, grasping bureaucrats, socialists, workshy spongers, amoral celebrities, trashy nouveau riche types, sexual perverts and traitors" and he has a proposition for Ritchie. With an air of some flamboyance—seriously you’d think he was a Bond villain—he makes Ritchie aware that he knows what he’s been up to:
‘[Y]ou’ve done wrong. Now you know the difference. I can see you feel sorry for yourself. You’re imagining other people feeling sorry for you too, aren’t you? Look at poor little Ritchie, getting a hiding from that evil tabloid editor. Look at him hounded and his privacy invaded. It was you, Ritchie. You did this.’ Val’s voice became softer. ‘When you don’t believe, when you don’t have faith in powers beyond this world to judge you, this is what happens. You don’t believe in God, so when you cheat, and lie, and bully little girls, there’s nobody to punish you. There’s just me.’
The price of his silence? Ritchie has a year’s grace. If within that time he has not provided Val with a suitably newsworthy (i.e. defamatory) story featuring his sister then the world will get to know precisely what kind of man Ritchie Shepherd truly is. At first Ritchie takes the high ground:
‘Do what you like … I’m not going to be your snitch and spy inside my own family.’
but by the time he’s driven home his resolve was somewhat diminished and he sends Val a text:
Do nothing precipitate
All the above takes 112 pages so a fifth of the book.
Now we’re introduced to Alex Comrie, brother of Dougie, nephew of Harry, friend to Ritchie and the drummer in his first band, Gorse. When Ritchie drops out of university to form The Ladygods with Karin, Alex sticks with his studies. Surprisingly Ritchie doesn’t let their friendship die even though their lives move off in very different directions. Perhaps having a scientist as a sister made him more amenable to having a “biomathematical traveller in the unmapped human cell” as a friend; that would be “gene therapist” to you and me. Ritchie is also oblivious to the fact Alex has a wee thing for his sister but nothing ever came of it when they were teenagers and now Alex is living with Maria with whom he seems to be unable to conceive a child.
Harry is also a scientist, “a medical geneticist who’d discovered that most people had a few immune cells with a recurring set of benign mutations that turned the mutant lymphocytes into cancer-hunting cells.” These “expert cells” as Harry calls them, if they could be harvested and tweaked genetically, could provide the cure to cancer. “He had already but cured one rare form of cancer.” The bugbear is that he’s suffering from one of the others and so it looks like Alex is going to be the man to pick up the torch. Needless to say, although he and Bec were never an item, Alex has followed her work in the journals. The odds of the two of them running into each other again are remote, even with Ritchie in common, but remote is not impossible. When we first meet him he’s still with Maria but with the failure of IVF their relationship is struggling.
Harry’s own son (and therefore Alex’s cousin) is Matthew. He is not a scientist nor has he ever been in a rock band. Matthew has found religion although it doesn’t seem to have brought him much joy. Father and son don’t get on. They don’t get on to such a degree that Matthew won’t even let Harry see his grandchildren in case he corrupts them with his blasphemous views regarding the origins of life. So Alex has pretty much taken over Matthew’s role as son and heir.
The last of the major players is Dougie, Alex’s brother. Dougie’s a postman and a bit of a waster. He owes his brother a lot of money but he’s really not that big of a rat or even much of a rat at all. There are bad men and there are weak men and Dougie really isn’t a bad man. He does do a bad thing, though. The bad thing. The thing is as far as bad things go it’s not that bad a bad thing. It’s just the wrong bad thing at the wrong (depending on your point of view) time.
Some books adapt well into either films or TV serials. I watched the recent remake of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and it was excellent but there was not an ounce of fat anywhere; it had been preened to the bone. There was no way that it was ever going to best the superb seven-part BBC adaptation. If I were adapting the Heart Broke In for the small screen I’d have to disembowel the book to make it work. I’d focus on chapters 1 to19 then jump to chapters 60 through 75, then see how much time I had left to cherry-pick from the middle of the book. And it would work. We’ve seen how scriptwriters have made it work time and time again. Ideally though someone like the BBC would get their hands on it, allocate it probably a four- or five-hour slot, farm out the work to a decent scriptwriter (maybe Paula Milne), sign up some big names (Michael Gambon would be perfect for ‘Harry’) and it would be compulsive viewing of a Sunday evening. Maybe not another Bouquet of Barbed Wire (the original) but good solid entertainment.
The blurb says it all really:
From James Meek, the award-winning author of the international bestseller The People’s Act of Love, comes a rich and intricate novel about everything that matters to us now: children, celebrity, secrets and shame, the quest for youth, loyalty and betrayal, falls from grace, acts of terror, and the wonderful, terrible inescapability of family.
If you’ve ever been a member of a family then you will get this book. You might not be able to relate to Ritchie’s philandering or Matthew’s piety; you might not get why it’s so important to Alex to father his own child but these are just details. Blood is thicker than water and so many great books and plays work because of that simple premise.
Theo Tait hits the nail on the head when he says in his review that Meek “is a novelist of Dostoevskyan intensity and seriousness, who occasionally yields to the impulses of the airport thriller.” Canongate editorial director Francis Bickmore describes it as "a 21st-century Anna Karenina" and his American counterpart echoes that viewpoint. There are “plots and subplots” but it took me a long time to work out which were the plots and which the subplots. Meek says:
I wanted this to be a multiperspective book. I wanted to go back to the way it used to be when a writer who appears to be focusing on a particular character will suddenly dip into the mind of another one. Well, I haven’t gone quite that far in The Heart Broke In, but it is told from multiple points of view.... One thing I can now do is enjoy a book and analyze it at the same time, and think, why do I like that, what’s the author doing there? I don’t know whether I’m a better writer now than I was 20 years ago, but I do know that I’m a better reader. – Johanna Lane, ‘Collisions with Strangeness: James Meek’, Publishers Weekly, 2nd July 2012
The book jumps from naught to sixty in about three pages. We’re dropped into the seething morass that is Ritchie’s life—his phone’s gone AWOL and then his girlfriend’s mother turns up, his daughter’s blackmailing him to get a spot on TV—and although he may be an unsavoury character he certainly is an interesting one—and then we get Bec’s story, then Alex’s and then there’s Harry talking to his barber—and I really couldn’t figure out where this was all going. Four of my own five novels would have been finished by this point and I didn’t feel that ‘the story’ had really started. I have said many, many times that I don’t like long novels and there were big chunks of this one I could not see the point of. Meek spends four pages describing a journey through streets that could have been summarised by the sentence, “The traffic was so bad he nearly missed her.”
Most novels—with perhaps the exception of crime novels where the crime often takes precedence—start off by letting us know who the protagonist is; frequently his are the first words we hear. He’s usually there on page one and, a bit like a chick breaking our way out of the egg, we see him and attach ourselves to him. The thing is Ritchie Shepherd is really not the book’s focus. At the heart of this book is the love story between Alex and Bec, although they are no Romeo and Juliet. Yes, because of what Ritchie got caught doing, he has an impact on their lives, but in this ensemble Bec feels to me like the star turn. (Lyndsey Marshal maybe?) I didn’t like giving Ritchie up. I might not have liked him but I wanted to see what happened to him and then I get all these scientists. I didn’t want to read about scientists; I wanted to see Ritchie get his comeuppance. Musically this is like Also Sprach Zarathustra. Everyone knows those famous opening bars but what happens after that? I felt cheated the first time I heard it. I still have that tape in fact and haven’t listened to it in years.
I’m not a scientist nor am I especially interested in science. If you’re going to talk science to me, make a documentary with flashy visuals and get someone cool like Morgan Freeman to do the presenting. Maybe then I’ll watch it. Probably not. Most of the science stuff in the book I wanted to be over. It clogged up the narrative. The moral dilemmas facing these individuals were more important than what they did to earn a crust. In an interview Meek writes:
People who do not believe in God are not excused from having to make moral choices, and you are a poor novelist, or poor human being, if you don’t examine what kind of a moral framework we have—or what it means to be living, loving, and having a family in a nonreligious world or one in which it is at least permitted not to believe. I don’t share the belief of the believers, but I do understand them when they say, Why be good? Why have children? Some philosophers have looked at these issues, but it hasn’t trickled down to Joe Atheist.
This is where the description “Dostoevskyan” is appropriate because everyone here eventually has to make a decision. The tag line for the book is:
Would you betray someone you love to give them what they want?
but that only refers to Bec’s problem. Ritchie’s conundrum is obvious but then Harry and Alex and Dougie all are faced with making decisions that will affect the lives of others. What moral compass is guiding them?
One reviewer on Goodreads says that she wished the book was longer. Actually I do get that because there are a lot of people in this book and some of the minor ones really don’t get the time on the page they probably deserve and will end up on the cutting room floor if they even manage to squeeze themselves into the script. Matthew’s daughter Rose who leaves home to become a Muslim is one. (Ciara Baxendale certainly looks the part. Now if she can just pull off the Scottish accent.) As far as I’m concerned there are two books fighting against each other here, a thriller and a morality tale. Once Bec answers her question it felt as if Meek had suddenly floored it. Up until that point it seemed like we’d been running on fumes. Too long for me but anything over 250 pages is too long for me. Meek has good points to make—and he makes them well—but he didn’t need to spend 550 pages making them.
You can preview the novel on Google Books here.
James Meek is a British writer and journalist. He was born in London in 1962 but moved when he was five to Broughty Ferry in Scotland.
After leaving university he worked as a journalist. In 1990 The Scotsman sent him to Saudi Arabia to cover the confrontation with Iraq over Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. He was in the Middle East for six weeks and was one of the first reporters into Kuwait City after the Iraqis fled. In 1991 he drove to Russia and began working as a freelance reporter for The Guardian. He lived in Moscow for five years.
The Heart Broke In is his fifth novel; he has also published two short story collections. In 2004 he was named Foreign Correspondent and Amnesty Journalist of The Year. His third novel, The People’s Act of Love (2005) won the Scottish Arts Council Book of Year Award and the Ondaatje Prize and has been translated into twenty languages. His fourth novel, We Are Now Beginning Our Descent (2008) won the Prince Maurice prize for literary love stories.
He now lives in east London and is a contributing editor for the London Review of Books.