Guest review by Byron from Bournemouth Book Club.

James Meek’s new novel operates in a category all of it’s own. Described by Philip Pullman as a ‘moral thriller’, The Heart Broke In is an exploration of deceit and betrayal in the modern world with its central themes rooted in infidelity and self-delusion.

We are launched into such a scenario from the off. Ritchie Shepherd, once frontman of the band Lazygods but now spending his middle-aged years indulging himself as a TV producer, has been cheating on his wife again. The difference this time being that the object of his extra-marital affections is Nicole, a 15-year-old former contestant on his show Teen Makeover. Meanwhile, his sister, Bec, a well-regarded malaria researcher, is getting engaged to tabloid newspaper editor, Val Oatman, though she’s not entirely sure why and before long she calls it off. The desperately lonely Val is wounded and needs something, or someone, to lash out at. Unfortunately for Ritchie, whose affair with Nicole has just been terminated, he is in the perfect position for his righteous vengeance.

Shortly after her break up with Val, Bec meets Alex Comrie, former drummer for her brother, who is now working as a pioneering geneticist in the fight against cancer. Relatively late in life, Alex, now obsessed with evolution theories, has decided that he wants, or rather needs, children despite numerous rounds of IVF treatment in a former relationship suggesting that this is unlikely to ever happen. His uncle and colleague, Harry, is dying from a rapidly progressing cancer. Harry’s illness serves to pull together the dysfunctional Comrie family, Alex’s philandering brother, Dougie, and Harry’s aggressively Christian son, Matthew, as they joust, with varying degrees of interest, over the subject of inheritance.

Perhaps the most gripping element of the novel is the way in which Meek examines the nature of betrayal. The blurb asks: “Would you betray someone you love to give them what they want?” While at first this question might be confounding, it becomes ever more salient as the plot evolves, with central characters wrestling with their consciences to make what they believe to be the right decision for the greater good, no matter how absurd it might seem to the casual observer. Indeed, the extent of the wide and varied cast serves only to muddy the waters further. When each individual has their own interpretation of what is right or wrong, can any decision, no matter how apparently insignificant at the time, be without consequence?

Meek’s style very occasionally comes across as vaguely self-indulgent (one scene in particular comes across as a literary equivalent to a Tarantino-esque sweeping panoramic shot taking in the insignificant minutiae of a social event) and the scientific elements are clearly mythical in stature (though they are well explained nonetheless) it is, however, a compelling read from beginning to end. While there have been suggestions that the character of Ritchie represents something of a straw man, he is nonetheless a vital and, crucially, valid element in a thundering plot that ultimately delivers more villains than heroes.

The Heart Broke In is published by Canongate and is now available in paperback and ebook editions. Thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy for review and to Byron for reading and reviewing it for me.

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Disclosure: Byron received a copy of this book free of charge for review purposes only. Guest reviewers are asked to share their honest opinion and are under no obligation to provide a positive review.