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Originally published Sunday, October 7, 2012 at 5:01 AM

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'The Heart Broke In': interlocking stories of contemporary London

James Meek's absorbing new novel, "The Heart Broke In," entwines the stories of several characters making their way in, out of and around contemporary London. Meek reads Tuesday at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

James Meek

The author of "The Heart Broke In" will appear at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co.; free (206-624-6600 or www.elliottbaybook.com).
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'The Heart Broke In'

by James Meek

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 403 pp., $28

British author James Meek's fifth novel take its title from an anecdote told by one of the characters, a scientist remembering an argument with a Russian biologist about the evolution of the body's organs. The Russian explained his theory that the liver evolved from a parasite; likewise the kidneys, the eyes, the brain, the lungs. Asked about the heart, the biologist answered, with unexpected passion, "Oh, the heart brrroke in!"

Similarly, the heart keeps breaking in throughout the pages of this wise, sprawling novel; its characters struggle with both rational and irrational responses to what they want. These include, among other things: immortality, biological children, an affair with a teenager, a cure for malaria, immunity from shame and scandal, forgiveness, peace with one's past, and a quiet home where one feels safe and sheltered from the outside world. Though the novel's settings travel the globe, from Africa to the San Francisco Bay, most of the characters are based on contemporary London, "a wild forest of red brick and roof tiles, where maps only reminded you how little you knew." The city is a mysterious tangle of possibilities, like the lives in this book that we come to know.

Though we've given a few flashback scenes, most of the book's action takes place over a year or so in the lives of a group of people related by blood and/or a shared past, with the third-person narrative's point of view constantly shifting.

Ritchie, a former pop star and current reality-show producer, lives in fear that someone will learn about his affair with an underage girl; he lies constantly and easily, as if he sees it more as storycrafting than wrongdoing. Bec, his sister, is a scientist toiling to find a cure for malaria — and in love with Alex, a former drummer in Ritchie's long-ago band, now a gene therapist obsessed with finding immortal life.

Around these main characters dance a small army of vivid supporting players: Alex's postman brother Dougie, who develops his own obsession; Ritchie's beautiful wife Karin, herself a rock star who still seems to create her own light; Alex's uncle Harry, a scientist facing his own death with clinical interest; Alex's niece Rose, who by the end of the book has begun her own mysterious journey; and Colum Donobhan, a former terrorist who killed Ritchie and Bec's father 25 years ago. To these people and their secrets, add the Moral Foundation, a website that describes itself as "a not-for-profit organization, set up to make the public aware of immoral behavior by prominent people" — run by a former tabloid editor with a grudge against several of the names above.

Meek, whose previous novels include "The People's Act of Love" (winner of the Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize) and "We Are Now Beginning Our Descent," expertly and elegantly entwines these stories like those twisting London roads, letting us get a little lost in the avenues before finding our way again. It's a novel to sink yourself into on a Sunday afternoon, disappearing into the characters' lives and worries and wants, and learning a little about immorality and immortality (the words are cousins), both thoughtfully explored. Asked why he wants to have biological children, Alex answers that he wants to belong. To what, Bec asks — society? "To time," he says, simply.

Moira Macdonald is the movie critic for The Seattle Times.

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