How do we distinguish right from wrong? What compels us to do the right thing? These fundamental questions provide the thematic underpinning to The Heart Broke In, the latest novel from acclaimed British writer and journalist James Meek.
Fittingly described by writer Philip Pullman as a "moral thriller", the novel centres on siblings Ritchie, an ageing rock god turned television presenter, and idealistic malaria researcher Bec, both of whom are forced to confront moral dilemmas with life-altering consequences.
Running to 550 pages, it's a beautifully observed, compulsively readable doorstop of a novel that's surprisingly funny, given the subject matter. The Dickensian cast of characters includes Bec's two major love interests: a spectacularly unpleasant newspaper editor called Val, to whom she is engaged at the beginning of the novel, and cancer researcher Alex, a former bandmate of Richie's with whom she settles down later in the story.
"The original idea was just thinking about why it is that religious families seem to have more children than families that aren't religious," Meek said of his inspiration for the novel.
"I started wondering what kind of a person would it be for whom this seemed terribly important personally.
"I began to imagine this character who was a scientist who was obsessed with evolution and, because he was quite an egotistical person, he imagined his own role in evolution - and of course the only way that you can literally take part in evolution as a person is by having children."
This obsessive scientist ultimately became Alex and, without giving too much away, it is his fixation on becoming a father that presents Bec with her own moral quandary.
Writing a novel is, as Meek put it, "a game of consequences" - "if this person does that, then what does that mean for this person?"
In this case, the game is set in motion by Ritchie's desperate attempts to keep Val - vengeful and increasingly maniacal after being dumped by Bec - from exposing his brief relationship with an underage girl.
A religious zealot and self-proclaimed moral arbiter, Val raises the question of where conscience comes from for non-religious people. As he threatens Ritchie, a self-proclaimed agnostic: "You don't believe in God, so when you cheat, and lie, and bully little girls, there's nobody to punish you. There's just me."
Val is not entirely sane but nonetheless Meek - himself an atheist - said he saw "a lot of value in the criticism of atheism from religious people when they say, 'Well OK, there's no God - what now, where are you getting your values from?'"
"I don't believe that people who aren't religious don't have values, that's nonsense. For me the idea that somebody would not go around killing and murdering and raping just because God says no is disturbing.
"But still the question that they raise is valid: I'm not running around murdering and raping and killing. If I behave in a way that's generally considered to be good, which I hope I do, why do I do that? Why am I not more of a low-down skunk than I am?"It's other people's needs that make us good or not," Meek said.
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