The title of this novel makes it sound like a romantic 1920s melodrama. Published in 2012, it is actually an acute social commentary about present day British life. The title is the punch line of a medical joke I don’t quite understand, but the book is brilliant.
The main protagonists are Ritchie Shepherd and his sister Bec. He is a former rock star, now with a wife, two children and large country house. These days he is the producer of a reality TV show, Teen Makeover. In him, Meek has created a character in that epitomises the sort of celebrity A list culture so beloved by the trashy end of the British tabloid press. He’s also having an affair with one of the – underage – teens on his show. Bec is a microbiologist, an expert in parasites; she has injected herself with parasites that may give some immunity to malaria in order to test the procedure’s safety. Others who carry some of the story are Alex, also a microbiologist, who is studying cell therapy and his uncle Harry, yet another research scientist, who is dying of cancer. There’s also a rich cast of other relations and friends – some of whom are aren’t all that friendly. The story has a complex web of relationships – involving love, betrayal, honour and death – as its drivers, with a good dose of science thrown in.
The book is thematically complex too. The epigraph is a quotation from Kafka, about starting and caring for a family; this is ‘the best that a man can do’, and family, heredity and inheritance are central to Meek’s story. The ‘best’ of some of the characters isn’t that good; Meek from the start undercuts this theme by noting that Kafka never got round to ‘family’ himself. The theme that emerges most strongly for me is less that of family, and more the question Meek poses about how to do the right thing. Each of the main characters faces a moral dilemma, and each deals with it differently. Meek uses the device of a website that threatens to reveal scandal about someone unless they dob in someone else to focus on these dilemmas. Is everyone equally self-serving? Can betrayal ever produce a good outcome? Is it true, as Bec concludes, that ‘In twenty-first-century England honour was not in play’? The website offering itself as a ‘God substitute’ seems based on malice rather than genuine concern about wrong-doing. A rigid belief in God doesn’t produce moral outcomes either. Even after saying this much, I am still wildly understating the complexity of the issues Meek is dealing with.
Meek lays out his moral arguments by counterpointing various actions of his characters one against another. An evil act (or one I think of as evil) is balanced against another that echoes the first, but is benign. What appears to be an act of heroism may not have been, and may anyway have produced more harm than good, whereas an act of betrayal may have produced more good than harm. Throughout the story one can see Meek posing his questions about the morality through clever plotting. He has been compared to Ian McEwan, and I can see similarities to the moral dilemmas of McEwan’s Amsterdam – reviewed here. But in Amsterdam, I thought the counterpointing of the plot made it overly determined, whereas Meek allows his characters to act in character, rather than as pawns moved by the author. I know they are constructs of the author – the trick is to make them appear to act as real people, not devices making the author’s point. I think Meek succeeds brilliantly here.
And then there’s the way he writes. There are some authors who I feel I could potentially write as well as, (not that I actually do) and there are some that are far above me. Meek is one of the latter. I guess it is essentially the right word in the right place. He can be very funny, as in the scene where Bec’s mother is defending her ‘humourist’ diet against Bec’s scepticism. ‘I don’t see why I have to die young because there’s only one kind of science allowed,’ she says. ‘Mum,’ says Bec. ‘It’s too late for you to die young.’ Ritchie is showing off his car to Bec, who has been talking to him about her anti malaria parasites. ‘You don’t see parasites driving these babies,’ he says, leaving the reader to wonder if Ritchie himself might not be a parasite. And you remember this phrase when Bec has to kill off her parasites if she is going to have a baby. Meek also writes powerfully about feelings and emotions, and the passage describing Harry’s death is truly moving. There’s some science (another similarity to McEwan) but is isn’t overwhelming, and is indeed an important part of the story.
This is Meek’s sixth book. He was on the staff of The Guardian until 2005 and has reported on subjects including the war in Iraq, the Chechen conflict, the treatment of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay and tax avoidance by the rich in the UK. He now writes regularly for the London Review of Books. You can find more about him here. I’m surprised I’ve never seen his work in contention for the Man Booker Prize, though this one was shortlisted for the Costa Book Award, formerly the Whitbread Prize; he was beaten by Hilary Mantel’s Bring up the Bodies, so not a bad effort. Definitely worth reading.