The Heart Broke In by James Meek

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The Heart Broke In by James Meek

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Robin Leggett
Reviewed by Robin Leggett
Summary: A highly entertaining moral thriller that looks at who are the guardians of morality in the modern age and who, if anyone, has the right to judge others. Combining well researched gene therapy, former rock stars, and a celebrity culture with a tabloid style expose.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 551 Date: August 2012
Publisher: Canongate
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9780857862907

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Shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award 2012

In The Heart Broke In, James Meek manages to combine some big and serious issues into a compellingly readable and entertaining moral thriller. At the centre of the book are two siblings who are very different. Ritchie is a former rock star, now working in the world of reality television producing a game show about teenage pop bands while his younger sister, Bec, is a devoted scientist working on a cure for malaria. On the one hand it's a story of family dynamics, but it's also a thoughtful and well constructed tale of morality and judgement. Setting science against religion it asks very modern day questions about who is the guardian of morality in today's world and who, if anyone, has the right to judge others' behaviour.

That makes it sound quite deep and it does tackle some major issues, but Meek maintains a lightness of touch throughout that ensures that it is always a satisfying read and there is plenty of tension to keep the story on track.

The questions it considers are very much at the heart of modern day life, although not even Meek can have foreseen how topical his book might prove when he has his music-related television personality embroiled in a teenage sex scandal. However, his Nostradamus touch deserts him as here the BBC don't go to any lengths to protect Ritchie. It is, however, this thread that kicks off the narrative and this is brave and challenging as it is initially hard to sympathize with Ritchie's plight. It is only when his sister, Bec, is introduced that the book gains its momentum.

Bec is a dedicated and good scientist who is initially dating a tabloid newspaper editor, Val. When this doesn't work out, the editor seeks personal vengeance setting up a web site, the Moral Foundation, devoted to exposing celebrity immorality through blackmail and coercion. The notion of the tabloids as guardians of morality is nicely made although of all the characters in the book, Val was the least convincing to me.

It is Bec's relationship with another scientist, a former drummer in one of Ritchie's bands, Alex, that is the bulk of the story and it is here that Meek introduces the religious aspect with Alex's cousin a devout Christian opposed to the scientific studies of Alex and his father, Alex's uncle. Meek's handling of the gene therapy scientific content is exemplary. He makes complex science simple to follow and fascinating, while ensuring that there is always a personal balance to things to keep the reader interested in the story development.

With the possible exception of Val who is less rounded than the others, all the characters, and there are many here, are well drawn and almost all are strong enough to hold a book on their own. There are times when I felt that there were just too many stories here jammed into the mix and the main plot takes a back seat for much of the book. However, each is as interesting and well depicted as the other. It's almost a case of 'too much of a good thing'. Certainly it could have been a tighter book, but then it would have lost some of the essential ambition that Meek shows. Part of the problem for me is that the story kicks off with Ritchie but then focuses more on Bec leaving a slight feeling of imbalance.

It's a book packed full of questions about big issues wrapped up in a number of interesting stories and plots. It's well worth reading.

Our thanks to the kind people at Canongate for sending us this book.

For more fiction meets science, check out The Devil's Garden by Edward Docx.

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