Zoë Heller on ‘The Believers’

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Zoë Heller’s new novel, ‘The Believers’, showcases the Bahamas-based author’s genius for creating complex, troubling characters

  • Zoë Heller on ‘The Believers’

    Heller and high water: Hurricane Ike only just missed Zoë's house © Jaques Brouchier

  • ‘I guess even paradise has its drawbacks,’ says Zoë Heller, on the phone from the tiny island in the Bahamas where she and her family have made their home for the last couple of years. Our conversation, which had to be postponed for a few days, nearly didn’t take place at all: Hurricane Ike blew through the region a few weeks ago. At one point it was heading straight for the Heller residence, ‘but it completely bypassed us and hammered Cuba instead. So we’ve got all our shutters up and a lot of food and water, but luckily no hurricane and no damage.’

    If she’d been of a religious bent, Heller might have thanked God for being spared; but although faith is the subject of her latest book, ‘The Believers’, writing about it – and particularly the experience of one of her characters, Rosa, an ex-Marxist who dabbles in orthodox Judaism – was ‘a leap of imagination, and at various points in the writing of it, I suspected that it was too large a leap for me.’

    Religion is not the only belief system she tackles: ‘The Believers’ is a detailed and sympathetic portrait of a New York family, the Litvinoffs, and the various testaments of faith that each member lives by. The patriarch, Joel, a hero of the liberal left, spends much of the novel in a coma; his wife Audrey, English by birth, frets at his bedside, snapping at her children and worrying about whether she can maintain her belief in her politics, her husband and her marriage now that Joel’s feet of clay have been revealed. Their children, meanwhile, have worries of their own: Rosa has her religious experiment, Karla must deal with a grimly unloving husband who is bullying her into parenthood, and Lenny – the apple of Audrey’s eye – is an addict whose dependency has become fatally interconnected with his mother’s love.

    ‘I’m interested in the mechanics of belief and how people operate,’ Heller explains. ‘I’d read this article about scientists who were trying to locate the belief gene. Whether or not such a gene exists, it struck me as a good metaphor for something I’ve often felt about friends and acquaintances of mine who are believers: that there’s something in their brain structure, their hard wiring, that makes them different from me.’

    Though this is unapologetically a novel of ideas, it’s Heller’s genius for character which makes her writing so compelling. And stress-flayed Audrey is the star of the show, spitting gloriously articulate invective and withering egos on a scorched-earth basis; mowing down everyone from pompous doctors to poor, meek Karla.

    Heller writes Audrey with palpable relish, though she’s defensive about her knack for creating nasty people, especially since ‘Notes on a Scandal’ hinged on a portrait of devastating malevolence. ‘It begins to seem like it’s an issue with the books I write,’ she says, carefully. ‘Quite often people say, “Ooh, what a monstrous character”, and “Who is there to like in this book?” And I suppose my answer is twofold: one is that I don’t think Audrey is monstrous through and through – I think she’s funny, or certainly meant to be funny. And then there are all sorts of extenuating factors. I read a review the other day that said, “Joel is the one charming character in the book, and we’re left with this pain in the neck.” And in one sense that exactly expresses what she’s had to deal with all her life, being the less desirable companion to this charming, charismatic, fabulous man, who is also this gigantic egotist. It’s quite hard work living with that kind of star.’

    Heller rails particularly against the idea that you read books to find characters you might like to be friends with in real life. ‘It’s amazing how often, both giving readings in book shops or reading reviews on Amazon, or even reading supposedly sophisticated criticism, that charge arises: “You’ve written somebody that I don’t like.” And you want to say, well, how do you feel about Iago? I take umbrage at all that.’ Such criticism, she feels, misses the point. ‘I very strongly feel that the job of fiction is not to write admirable figures, but to imagine one’s way into all sorts of people, often people who ostensibly at least are deeply unlikeable or unpleasant. The question is not whether you like them but whether you understand them.’

    ‘The Believers’ is published by Fig Tree at £16.99.

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Leslie Musoko
Leslie Musoko

Interesting read. Unfortunately I find that this is limited to what we see rather than what we don't. Faith cannot be charaterised, analyed or judged. Neither can I explain to Zoe why she met her husband or decided to marry him. It is something we all feel and better explained by the individual that feels it.