The Believers, By Zoë Heller

Click to follow

Just as there are songs which announce themselves as great from the opening chords, there are some books that you just know are going to be great from the first page, the first paragraph, the first line. Zoë Heller's third novel, The Believers, is just such a book. It opens in 1962 with a shy young woman, Audrey, at a party in Bloomsbury, where she meets a hot-shot American radical lawyer, Joel. It is only a brief scene, but the descriptions – a group of young men form "a small anthology of body odours" – and the account of party dynamics make it as funny as Kingsley Amis, and far more insightful.

Fifteen pages later, Joel and Audrey are in New York, it is 2002, and they have three grown-up children.

The novel effortlessly switches point of view: there's a brilliant description of Joel's working day as a 72-year-old lawyer defending a terrorist suspect, until it is abruptly terminated by his suffering a massive stroke: the viewpoint then alternates between Audrey, a sour, disappointed radical, trying to come to terms with a secret from Joel's past; her daughter Rosa, a left-wing revolutionary who's inexorably drawn to orthodox Judaism; and the other daughter, Karla, a downtrodden social worker in an unhappy marriage going through the procedure for an adoption she doesn't even want. None of the characters, apart from Karla, is entirely likeable – in fact, they're often pretty horrible – but they are irresistibly interesting to read about.

This is a novel of ideas: what does one believe in, and how does that affect the way one lives? But if that makes the novel sound dull and worthy, it isn't. The prose sings off the page. Heller's eye for family dynamics is razor-sharp; she is also a past master at the art of swearing. Open this book and settle down for 306 pages of pure pleasure.