A prize-winning journalist and novelist, James Meek has been called Britain’s answer to Don DeLillo. His prose, like DeLillo’s, is contagious. The plot plunge of The Heart Broke In is pleasantly steep, opening with Ritchie, an ageing rock star, having an affair with a minor. From England, Meek whisks us off to Papua New Guinea, where Ritchie’s sister Bec is on a quest to cure malaria. Soon thereafter, Bec is back in London breaking up with her fiancé, newspaper mogul Val Oatman. Whereupon she is wooed by Alex, a microbiologist whose scientific star is rising.
The whoosh of the story calls to mind the headlong pace of Alex’s madcap cycleride from Mile End to Paddington Station to catch Bec before she jets off to Tanzania: “The lights were green at Angel and Alex sped across Pentonville Road, racing and dodging buses, jumping lanes, knocking against the sides of cars with his handlebar ends. He crested the hill, saw the long slope down to King’s Cross ahead of him, made a dash for the bus lane, lowered his head, added his pedalling to gravity and built up speed till the slipstream buffeted his face.”
In short, the pages turn painlessly. Sorting the characters from the types requires a bit more labour. Bona fide characters populate Meek’s world – Alex and Bec spring to mind – but they must share it with a dimestore villain, a one-dimensional rocker and a familiar old-school cancer scientist nobly succumbing to the disease he’s spent his life fighting. Tackling evolution, morality and the nature of time, Meek’s novel is engrossing, but it doesn’t quite manage to feel as consequential as it ought to.
THE HEART BROKE IN, by James Meek (Canongate, $36.99).
Thom Conroy is a lecturer at Massey University and writes fiction under the pen name Thomas Gough.