Zoë Heller's dark and funny farce of politics and family life impresses Joanna Briscoe
by Zoë Heller
"Eagerly awaited" is a claim that usually carries a squeal of optimism, a dash of spin, the book's readership quietly enthusiastic rather than salivating at the bookshop door. However, five years after Notes on a Scandal - a novel that was Booker-shortlisted, translated into 29 languages and adapted into an Oscar-nominated film - Zoë Heller's latest offering, The Believers, is, quite genuinely, eagerly awaited.
This third novel is more mature than Notes on a Scandal, and radically different in tone and subject matter. The Believers is at heart an American novel: a larger, more considered, layered and utterly assured study of a family driven by political passion whose personal lives refuse to comply with prescribed ideology.
In a 1962 prologue, Audrey Howard meets the politically fervent, loud and energetic Joel Litvinoff while living a quiet London life as a typist. On their second meeting, he suggests she elope with him to his native America and she accepts the challenge. Forward to 2002 New York, neatly avoiding the heartsink of yet another 9/11 novel with glimpses of Ground Zero, and Joel is a celebrated radical lawyer, while Audrey has spent her life upholding both the uncompromising socialist politics the couple espouse and the almost mythical creation that is her husband.
The Believers focuses on this American-English Jewish family shortly after Joel suffers a stroke in the courtroom. His subsequent coma precipitates the unravelling of a family whose supposed political unity has always - quite naturally - been riddled with hypocrisies and clashing convictions. Audrey is by now a hilarious, foul-mouthed harridan: part monster, part inspiring law unto herself, her approach so excoriatingly direct that the reader waits in wincing glee for her next spitting and swearing tirade. The "mark of her unparalleled intimacy with the legend" that is Joel is a "deadpan unimpressibility". She's always been a reluctant mother, but a flicker of maternal impulse is inspired by her adopted son Lenny, to whose drug addiction and wastrel ways she is oblivious, while her two biological daughters, Karla and Rosa, receive little beyond scornful chastisements and dictates about how to live their lives.
Rosa has spent four years in Cuba, wedded to the cause of revolutionary socialism. She had imagined herself "striding along in history's vanguard, like one of those muscular heroines in a Soviet constructivist poster", only to return to New York and attend an Orthodox synagogue. To her atheist family, this is an outrage.
Karla is the rejected, overweight oldest child, abused guardian of family delusions ("there was something in the brutal candour of her mother's sallies that pleased her"), and now the unhappy wife of a man who both resents and looks up to the feted Litvinoffs. An entirely unexpected adulteress, she begins an affair with a man she meets through work. The Litvinoff children's "impeccably progressive, internationalist upbringing" among liberal intelligentsia has left them naive in many ways. Dogma has replaced emotion.
Joel's prognosis is increasingly grim: Rosa is left to struggle with her faith, Lenny with his addictions, and Audrey with everyone she encounters. Into the drama strolls Berenice Mason, armed with proof of her longterm affair with Joel in the form of a young son and paternity payments. This cracks even Audrey's carapace, and the resulting abusive outbursts are gems.
The Believers is an astonishingly well-observed slow burner, its virtuoso prose compressed and beautiful. Zoë Heller possesses true brilliance as a writer. Whether this novel hangs together cohesively is another matter: its intention is at times elusive, its momentum uneven. Despite the buildup of multiple viewpoints and dilemmas, the story itself maintains only a light hold on the reader, its hooks less deep than those of Notes on a Scandal, a novel whose sinister monomania extended an ever-tightening grip. Heller can only be admired for her refusal to crowd-please and for her almost cussed choice of subject matter, but extended scenes of dialogue can lose impact and slow the pace.
As a large, intelligent and stunningly written novel of a dysfunctional New York family, The Believers is strongly reminiscent of Claire Messud's The Emperor's Children. The Litvinoffs' knee-jerk 60s radicalism could be an easy target for mockery, but Heller's touch is light, and she reserves her more vicious satire for the bit-part players. This is a subtle, funny and dark family farce about faith and identity. It fails to satisfy completely, but in its thundering confidence and lyricism, The Believers is the work of a writer at the top of her game. [www.guardian.co.uk]