Archives for posts with tag: Costa Book Awards

The+Heart+Broke+InMy early thoughts on The Heart Broke In were positive. It seemed absorbing, has a big, bold cast of characters, and James Meek is a great storyteller. It is part moral thriller, part classy, sleek soap opera – there’s blackmail, infidelity, scorned lovers, death, questions of paternity and tabloid exposés. Then things went sour. I really wanted to like this but The Heart Broke In never remotely lived up to its early potential.

Val Oatman, tabloid newspaper owner, gets his kicks from exposing the dirty secrets of beloved celebrities. He uses his newspaper to put them on a pedestal, only to send them crashing to the ground. Val sets up the Moral Foundation, an agency devoted to blackmailing celebrities with secrets to hide into giving up the secrets of friends and family. Ritchie Shepherd finds himself in Val’s sightline after Ritchie’s sister Bec breaks Val’s heart. Ritchie, a middle-aged ex-rock star and reality makeover show producer, has just ended his latest extra-marital affair, this time with a fifteen year old girl.

Bec is a scientist doing research on a malaria vaccine. She soon starts dating Ritchie’s old friend Alex, a fellow scientist doing cancer research. Bec and Alex reach celebrity couple status due to their cutting edge discoveries. Alex is desperate for a child but has had trouble conceiving with his previous girlfriend, and now with Bec. These elements, along with a dozen others, come together to give Ritchie the ammunition he needs to escape the clutches of the Moral Foundation.

Meek has a finicky writing style – ‘folding a leaf of crispy chicken skin onto the tines of his fork’. It’s not often that I see references to a fork’s tines, and then there are whole pages dedicated to intricate description of Alex riding his bike through London. As an isolated incident Meek’s prose wouldn’t have bothered me, but the infractions kept adding up.

The Heart Broke In is full of nasty characters, which isn’t a problem in itself but either something about them has to be particularly interesting or the plot has to keep you going. Unsavoury characters have the potential to be flat; their nastiness can become all that defines them. Meek struggles to keep his characters three-dimensional; he fights to show they have ‘feelings’, that they are ‘conflicted’. He even tried to make me believe that Ritchie is capable of feeling guilt. As I read The Heart Broke In I felt certain that Ritchie must be a sociopath. Even if that’s what Meek was aiming for I’m not convinced sociopaths make for interesting fiction characters. Ritchie has a strange urge to be known for his generosity but he only cares for others to the extent that they offer him something – they make him look like a good father, or they give others something to envy. When, at first, Ritchie decides to sacrifice himself for the good of his sister he phrases his reasoning to do so in such as way that, despite doing the right thing, he comes across as unbelievably selfish, petulant and disgusting.

Val Oatman’s actions only make sense if he is mentally ill, which is a cop-out, and Bec Shepherd uses incredibly twisted logic to justify using Alex’s brother for her own gain (I felt it was out of character given the rest of the novel). Meek obviously wanted to explore shades of morality, the characters needed to do certain things in order to say what he needed to say, resulting in plot dictating character. That just so happens to be a pet hate of mine, so other readers will likely be more forgiving.

So if the characters are hard to fathom, then there’s always plot to keep your interest. Not here. After a great start there’s a huge lull. The plot reaches a stalemate about half way through, to the point that I considered not bothering reading any more but I don’t think it’s fair to dislike a book you haven’t read until the bitter end. I’m persistent. Bec’s malaria research, Alex’s cancer research, and the progression of their relationship were well done but not nearly enough to make up for how boring it got when the blackmail plot petered out.

Eventually the blackmail scheme that was set up at the very start becomes relevant again. But too late. The Heart Broke In was unrealistic, overly long and, especially for all it promised, fairly dull. It would have automatically been much better if it had just been shorter or, I suppose, if Meek had just had something more to say. The start was great though.

Skippy DiesSkippy Dies recounts the exploits of a group of fourteen year-old Irish boys at Seabrook Catholic boarding school. The titular Skippy, innocent and hopeful but deeply troubled, and his fat, incredibly nerdy friend Ruprecht take centre stage. Then there’s the colourful supporting cast – Italian ‘ladies man’ Mario, sarcastic Dennis, clownish Geoff, and Niall (who always gets cast as the heroine in school plays) round out Skippy’s gang. Carl and Barry are their villainous schoolmates – local psychopaths, bullies and drug dealers. Lori is the beautiful object of Skippy’s affection from the neighbouring girls’ school. In the midst is Howard Fallon, Seabrook alumnus and disgraced stockbroker, returned as a teacher of First World War history. He’s confused and broken but he’s a bright spark of humanity amongst the Seabrook staff. Skippy Dies is as much Howard’s story as it is the boys’.

The rest of the teachers and priests are, at best, incompetent grotesques straight out of an adults-only version of a Roald Dahl kids’ book, always failing to understand the delicate nature of growing up. Acting Principal Greg Costigan’s only interest is in taking his place in history as Principal of a prestigious school, only paying attention to his students if they threaten to damage Seabrook’s fine reputation. The Principal, Father Desmond Furlong, is ill and Greg sees only a PR opportunity and, rather gleefully, organises the Father Desmond Furlong Memorial Concert – before the Father’s even dead. It’s this exaggeration of absurdity and witty verve that mark Skippy Dies as a great comic novel.

In the opening scene Skippy dies. The rest of the novel recounts the lead-up to his death. The sudden death of an unknown teenage boy during a doughnut eating competition is horrifying yet inappropriately, darkly comical. But then you get to know Skippy, and you care about him. I found myself wishing that what had been written could magically change, that Skippy doesn’t have to die, that someone would, alternate universe-style, do something differently to change the course of history. People do notice that Skippy’s in trouble, Howard kindly but awkwardly tries to ask him how he’s going, but to no avail. And so, despite being hysterically funny, Skippy Dies is haunted by Skippy’s death.

Paul Murray has written a novel that’s quirky, geeky, and a perfectly balanced combination of crass and sweet. One moment Mario is deciding how many condoms to bring to a school dance (probably a box or two just to be sure), then Howard is having a philosophical pub conversation about the quantum mechanical explanation versus Einstein’s theory of relativity and how it relates to feeling like his life has no overarching narrative. Skippy Dies is also a love story, encompassing all its permutations and perversions. It chronicles the grand tradition of boys falling for girls that are beautiful but completely wrong for them. There’s Skippy falling in love for the first time with Lori, but she’s already mixed up with Carl. While Howard’s wooing of haughty substitute teacher Aurelie is just the grownup version, proving that wisdom doesn’t automatically come with age.

Skippy Dies evokes memories of school and youth; the pranks played on teachers, the schemes concocted. The boys’ largely inept adventures actually made me laugh out loud, which I find is rare for a book. It reminded me of a sweeter, more intelligent, more emotionally affecting version of The Inbetweeners (lots of hilarious, crude, cringe inducing talk about having sex with girls, yet very little action). Or I thought of Skins, only funnier. Skippy and his friends deal with drug abuse, teen pregnancy, death, self-harm, anorexia and sexual assault. All the ‘big issues’ are there but it doesn’t feel fake or preachy. When it comes to coming-of-age tales Skippy Dies is in a class of its own.

Skippy Dies begs to be reread. It’s so clever and multifaceted but without being condescending or pretentious. Murray made me feel like esoteric string theory and First World War history are actually not just relevant but absolutely integral to understanding real life. It’s much more than a comic novel. It’s a novel about life, encompassing all its pain and its absurdities. Simply brilliant.