James Meek’s new novel, The Heart Broke In, is a rare thing – a major fiction book aimed at a mainstream audience, with science - and scientists – front and center. It’s a big, multilayered novel with multiple plot strands involving pop music, tabloid journalism and politics, but it should appeal especially to a science-loving audience through its depictions of dedicated young scientists working on potentially major discoveries while negotiating the challenges of love and family.
(Full disclosure – I am neither a scientist nor a literary critic. I am the artist who painted the malaria-infected blood cells for the cover of the book. This post may contain some mild spoilers.)
The novel is packed with dozens of vivid characters, but Meek has stated unequivocally that biologist Rebecca Shepherd, known as Bec, is his heroine, and he places her, and her scientific work, at center stage.
We see Bec working in the field in Africa, observing the local villagers who seem to have some natural immunity to malaria. She discovers a parasite which has crossed over from birds to humans that offers partial protection from malaria but causes major side effects, including periodic loss of vision. Like many scientists, she becomes extremely attached to “her” parasite, which she names after her murdered father. Unlike most, she also allows it to infect her, which causes her anguish later.
Bec returns to London, and we get a detailed description of her work in the lab.
“Bec carried the flask to the hood, sprayed ethanol over the gloves, opened the flask, drew chicken blood out with a pipette, dropped it in an Eppendorf, and gave it a turn in the centrifuge. Dotting a clean glass slide with specks of blood, she smeared the blood into a film and dried it with a hairdryer, then fixed the film with ethanol, made up a flask of Giesma solution, dropped the stain onto the blood, and set it aside to take.”
She becomes so absorbed in her task that she stays in the lab all night.
Meek dives into the large and small ethical issues faced by working scientists. Bec is forced to confront the reality of a vaccine that offers only partial protection from malaria when the young son of her housekeeper in Tanzania dies after being vaccinated. She also suffers personally from its harsh physical side effects. Meek effectively portrays the journey from the excitement of discovery through the emergence of drawbacks to the development of effective treatments.
Alex, Bec’s romantic partner, is also a scientist, developing a cancer treatment based on the work of his uncle Harry, a renowned medical geneticist and the head of a research institute. When Harry learns that he has terminal cancer, he pressures Alex into two actions – overstating the potential applications of his discovery in a major publication and giving a dose to the dying Harry – which will have profound consequences.
In the course of the novel, both Alex and Bec also confront vexing issues common to young, successful scientists – professional jealousy, accusations of nepotism, and the lure of media stardom.
Beyond the nitty-gritty details of scientists’ lives, Meek places science at the center of his narrative in larger ways. He returns again and again to the theme of evolution, of reproduction and the creation of new generations. After years spent narrowly focused on his research, Alex has an epiphany:
“In that moment it seemed incredible to him that he’d spent fifteen years pondering the cell, making himself a master of life’s cogs and wheels, fretting that he didn’t belong in the procession of human life, an alien observer taking notes on the gypsies, fiddlers and balladeers jigging past, and had missed this insight: that men and women could have children ... It was one thing to talk about evolution but having children was the way to be a part of it.”
This realization, so obvious in theory, is not so simple in practice. Some characters take extreme measures in their quests to have children, while others are bitterly disappointed in or estranged from their offspring. Harry, the geneticist, sees his nephew Alex as his natural heir, further alienating his only son, Matthew, a fundamentalist Christian with four children of his own. Two pairs of siblings following radically different paths in life provide further evidence that close up, human evolution is anything but a neatly unfolding process.
And yet Meek manages to portray evolution in a way that is deeply personal, lovely and profound. In one scene, Alex is confronted by his niece Rose, who has been raised to believe that only religious faith can provide the meaning to life.
“What’s the point of living, then?”
Alex stood up and began flapping his arms up and down. Rose shook her head and laughed at him and Alex said: “The first thing you feel when you’re born is time. Time, you see?“ He looked around and blinked as if he could feel time on his face like the wind, as if he could smell it. “Everyone around you is moving through time and changing. That’s the journey you’re born into. You’re born on the wing. Flying through time, on a great migration.” As he talked he trotted around the kitchen table, flapping his arms heavily as if he were a weary bird. “And then, still traveling, you give birth yourself.” Still flying around the table, he used one wing to make an extravagant natal gesture.
“I hope there’s somebody there to catch the egg,” said Rose.
“Come on! Follow me! Come on!” Rose sighed and shook her head and with her hands in her pockets began to trudge around the table after her uncle. “Take your wings out of your pockets!” said Alex. “Fly! And when your child looks back at you and asks: ‘Where did we start this journey?’ you remember that you asked that question, too, and never got an answer. You never found out where you were going. But when you die, you’d rather still be flying. And the others around you, your children and your friends, the great flock, they’re still flying on.”
That is far from a standard textbook depiction of evolution. But it’s a beautiful picture of how science feels when the heart breaks into it.
The Heart Broke In was published by FSG on October 2.
James Meek will be making appearances in the following US cities.