This is a big juicy slab of a book, as thrilling and nourishing as a Victorian three-parter. It resembles its forebears thematically, too. It asks a straightforward question: how does one know how to do the right thing when there is no moral foundation for our actions? Where the Victorians had a forthright Christianity, modern secularism has no such set of rules, and its absence means that our notions of right and wrong have to be more or less made up as we go along.
This is particularly true for Richie Shepherd. Formerly lead singer of The Lazygods, and now the producer of a TV show celebrating teen mediocrity, Teen Make-over, he is almost comically able to rearrange his vices as virtues. At school he was a bully, but doesn’t recognise himself as such: ‘If the victim didn’t laugh it off, it made Richie feel bad, and he was sure he was good.’ Moral confusion is the donnée of the novel, which commences with Richie’s seduction of a 15-year-old contestant on his show.
In contrast, Richie’s sister Bec is seeking a cure for malaria, but also a moral foundation to help her decide between right and wrong. Their father, executed by the IRA when they were children for refusing to betray an informant, exerts a powerful moral pressure.
The other family in the book are the Comries, who include another pair of siblings. Alex, formerly the drummer for The Lazygods, is a scientist studying ageing, and Dougie is his dropout brother, a self-pitying wastrel. Their uncle, Harry, is an eminent scientist, who has taken Alex under his wing, in preference to his own son Matthew, who has become a zealous Christian (his daughter Rose becomes a devout Muslim).
As we know, unhappy families are unhappy in their own way, but here each set of siblings contains one good guy and one bad. The goodness and the badness is not absolute. These characters are recognisably themselves, more than cyphers for the novelist’s themes.
This is a rich book, very much of the moment, concerned as it is with the invasion of privacy and the publicising of intimacy, the press represented by a kind of diabolus ex machina named Val Oatman (surely an anagram, I thought, but I find the name is derived from the Old English geat, meaning gate — so perhaps lav gatekeeper?). Names are important. Bec is probably the modest, generous and beautiful Rebekah of Genesis, who takes 45 years to conceive. Religious and quasi-religious allusions abound: the Book of Judges, Canaan (the name of a gentlemen’s club), saintliness, Islam, eco-zealotry.
Meek constantly shifts the reader’s own moral foundations, as we try to decide who is doing right and wrong and why and how. It is a generous, kind book, and it is kindness, an immutable quality, that is presented here as the antidote to dogmatic moralising. Like Larkin’s Arundel tomb, The Heart Broke In proves our almost-instinct almost true. What will survive of us is love.