I’ve been looking forward to this novel since I first came across it in Canongate’s catalogue. Some of you may have already heard of Matthew Weiner, or you may know his writing from Mad Men or The Sopranos but not his name. As is so often the case, it’s the starry actors’ names that stay with us – Elisabeth Moss or James Gandolfini – but not the scriptwriters’ without whom, of course, there’d be no boxed set to watch and rewatch. Heather, The Totality is Weiner’s first novel, a slim, dark piece of fiction which more than fulfilled expectations raised by hours spent in front of his screen creations.
Mark and Karen have just tipped over into their forties when they meet. She’s something of a beauty, working as a publicist but happy at the prospect of marriage and a family. He works in finance, no physical match for her with his chubby plain features but successful in his way, if only through luck. They marry, set up house and soon Karen is pregnant. Heather is a beautiful, intelligent child, almost preternaturally empathetic. She becomes the centre of Karen’s life while Mark resentfully accepts whatever crumbs are thrown his way. When the penthouse apartment is renovated, most of the residents move out for the duration but Karen insists on staying, reluctant to disturb Heather’s routines. One of the workers arouses Mark’s suspicions when he’s caught ogling Heather, now a startlingly attractive teenager. A child of poverty and violence, Bobby is the opposite of Heather with whom he has become obsessed. For Mark, his intentions are terrifyingly clear.
Weiner’s smart, sharp debut explores privilege and deprivation, marriage and parenting, love and jealousy with precision and insight, all wrapped up in a taut piece of noir. The perspective shifts smoothly between the four main characters intensifying the novel’s suspense and our relationship with them. Weiner’s prose is as polished as you might expect from his screenwriting: clipped, crisp yet vivid.
Mark knew that unlike his Sister, who had starved to avoid breasts and menstruation and men, Heather would be a normal teenage girl, and that was no comfort either
Heather’s empathy had matured with the rest of her and was now incisive to the point of pain
Heather’s privilege and Bobby’s lack of it are quietly contrasted in parallel narratives woven neatly through the novel’s episodic structure. It all works beautifully and the ending is a triumph. Weiner’s book comes proclaimed ‘superb’ by Philip Pullman, and indeed it is.