[Book review] The Believers by Zoë Heller

Zoë Heller, The Believers (Penguin, £7.99)

Heller’s saga of a left-wing New York family reconciling itself first to the slow death of its patriarch, and then to the mortifying revelation of his secrets, has lots to enjoy – wit and insight, sympathy and intelligence. But it’s a family novel, and not in the end the saga of faith and doubt that the title hints at.

That isn’t to say that Heller lacks intelligence when it comes to believing, and she invests her characters with various forms of devotion: marital, maternal, filial, political, and religious. Yet despite the range of commitment she presents through the Litvinoff family, it seems as though every faith is cultivated to a point beyond the abilities of Heller’s sympathy. Once The Believers attain their belief, Heller’s narrative closeness falls away.

An example? In the early stages of the novel, it’s older sister Rosa who dominates – a dedicated socialist whose political convictions were undone by a long stay in Cuba and some untold romantic disappointment. But as her trajectory draws her into Orthodox Judaism, Heller loses the ability to draw her inner world: faith cuts her off from the world. By the end of the story, the free indirect discourse emanates mainly from younger sister Karla, whose direction is a more worldly, more fleshly one.

The same is true of their mother, Audrey. The phases of her anxiety (in her case, anxiety about her devotion to her husband) are drawn with a riveting rawness. Once she’s reached a resolution though, she falls away, becoming far less interesting. Is this just because the state of reaching is so much more active than the state of knowing? Or is it that Heller is simply better at delineating doubts than certainties? It’s hard to say, but it certainly feels like a loss when Heller has brought you so far with a character – yet won’t take you into what is, for the outsider, the most fascinatingly incomprehensible phase of all.

Uncertainty isn’t a problem that plagues the story itself. There isn’t a gun on the mantelpiece that doesn’t explode in someone’s face: the classes become a conversion, the flirtation becomes an affair, the steely and controlling lady remains steely and controlling. Almost everything makes sense within the novel’s own terms – if only, though, that consistency could have been achieved with a few surprises thrown in. As it is, there are only maybe two and a half things which register any degree of suspense, and in every case they slide towards the most-expected conclusion.

It’s not a happy novel. In fact, it has a groggy undertow of cynicism in many parts – something that frequently distracts from the compassion demanded by this sort of big novel with its many interacting characters. If one of the principals can find it so hard to see merit in other people, and go without narrative censure for her withdrawal, what sort of concern is the reader supposed to work up for that character?

Heller is exquisitely sensitive to the emotional negotiations which generate the compromises on which family is built, but seems able only to half-heartedly applaud them – whereas as faith seems to erect a boundary through which criticism is pointless, or impossible. A novel, then, for which faith is admirable but also uninteresting. A well-made novel, but one that in the end fails to be totally engaging or satisfying.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2009