The Believers, by Zoë Heller

Notes on belief and betrayal
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The Independent Culture

Looking at Zoë Heller's back catalogue, it seems as though she has set herself the challenge of writing characters who are not at all easy to like. The hero of her first novel, Everything You Know, was a bitter, middle-aged man slowly unravelling. The character that made her name was Barbara Covett in Notes on a Scandal. She was manipulative and slightly unhinged, and yet Heller said: "If one doesn't find her occasionally sympathetic I think I've failed." The heroine of The Believers is just such a woman. Cantankerous, rude and bordering on the misogynistic, she is a daring portrait of a person whom nobody would like to meet. Initially, it's hard to imagine how even Heller could make this one sympathetic.

The novel begins with a prologue set in London in 1962, at a party where 19-year-old, British Audrey meets Joel, the American lawyer whom she will marry. A series of acid vignettes sets the scene. Audrey is introduced to a trio of students. "Up close, the three men were a small anthology of body odours," she observes. She walks away from a bemused woman guest, resenting female conversation and its "assumption of shared preoccupations". Introduced to Joel, she evaluates him shrewdly. "Casting about in the exotic territory of old age, she had placed him in his early thirties."

When the novel kicks off, 40 years later in New York, Audrey has not mellowed. Joel is by this time a celebrated lawyer, notorious among the right-wing media. The pair are comfortably radical. They have three, grown-up children and a cleaner whom they address as an equal... though "privately, she thought her socialist conscience could have survived a tiny bit more deference from Sylvia." Things begin to fall apart as Joel is about to go into court to represent a man accused of terrorism. But this isn't going to be that kind of American novel. Instead of beginning to defend his client ("on the grounds of legitimate Arab rage", as Audrey would have it), Joel collapses with a stroke and is taken to hospital, unconscious.

At the point at which The Believers becomes a relatively conventional, multi-viewpoint narrative, then, the one character whose viewpoint is suddenly the most crucial is made mute. Joel is a kind of invisible focal point, around whom gather the women in his life: vituperative Audrey, stubborn, intelligent daughter Rosa and her fat sister Karla. Audrey and Joel's adopted stoner son Lenny is also the focus of much female attention. Like Joel, he doesn't get a voice of his own.

The belief of the title is manifold. Rosa, to the fury of her fiercely atheist parents, is tentatively discovering Judaism, and all the questions that it raises about her other values. Karla is trying, half-heartedly, to conceive, and believes that she is unlovable – "as ugly inside as I am out" – until a less-than-handsome Egyptian colleague makes her re-evaluate all her beliefs. Audrey, above all, believes in herself and Joel: "Married life was like good health," she considers. "There was no bloody point to it if you could not occasionally abuse it or take it for granted." Of course, while Joel lies in his coma, Audrey is forced to confront a betrayal that makes her doubt everything she has believed.

In Notes on a Scandal, Heller presented an astute study of family life from the perspective of one looking in. The Believers is the claustrophobic, obscured view from within that unit, and it is here that Audrey becomes such a success. Threatened by outsiders, patronised and questioned, her belief becomes bravery and her unshakeable self-sufficiency is truly admirable. While the more sympathetic members of her family undermine their own beliefs – about religion, morality, America, even – Audrey finds a kind of faith.

Perhaps, then, this is that kind of American novel – about conviction and loyalty, belonging and self-doubt. And, though Heller is a recent newcomer to the country, this is without doubt an insider's account. In Audrey, she has created a character who is questioning herself for the first time as external forces she had not counted on besiege her secure little world. So does Heller make us like this brash, self-confident character? Well, maybe not like, exactly. But she does earn for her a grudging, but undoubted, British respect.