If you want to write a dystopian novel in these quasi-dystopian times, you need to go dark. Really dark. And the premise of Juli Zeh’s bracing, furious novel, Empty Hearts, is so dark that I laughed out loud when I read it on the book’s back cover ... bracing, furious ... has the veneer of a thriller but it’s more accurate to call it a chiller: chilling in the accuracy of its satire and chilling in its diagnosis of our modern malaise. The novel may appear at first glance to be a facile 'Wake up, yuppies!' parable, but it guides us with assurance toward thornier terrain.
Zeh's thriller-plot continues to be rather far-fetched -- cinematic or made-for-TV over the top simplistic -- but offers more than a passing nod to the moral implications of actions and inaction. It doesn't quite work -- that ship largely sailed with the suicidal premise of The Bridge -- but at least she tosses it in the mix, and tries to treat it seriously ... For such weighty material, Zeh has opted for a very breezy story -- agreeably fast-paced, but certainly thin in way too many regards. The incidental activity and the descriptions of day-to-day business and life -- is what's most successful (except when it gets too predictable, as in the safe-house Britta, Babak, and Julietta retreat to). The suicidal drift of a society sinking into fatal anomie, on the other hand, could definitely do with more exposition. And the bad guys are more than just a little bit silly ... a thriller for these times, both in subject matter -- it practically screams, on every page: relevant! -- and in its essentially TV-formatted ultra-quick (and thin ...) presentation and handling of the issues. It is, ultimately, simply too quick -- in its action and its many leaps, including through moral and other kinds of hoops -- but is certainly adequately satisfying as a pass-time read or book-club selection (lots to discuss!).
With so much political context backgrounding the plot, Empty Hearts explores interesting ideas about the price of failure to act against tyranny and the moral complicity of people who capitalize on a bad situation, or do nothing in the hopes that it will all go away. On this level, Empty Hearts works as a cerebral thriller, even if the logic of some characters’ actions doesn’t quite hold together. At times I wished Britta would just kick someone’s butt. The novel also could have benefited from a closer look at the leaders and inner workings of the CCC and more examination of the deeper conspiracy at play.
Still, Zeh challenges readers to consider how complicit we are in our current political dilemmas.
... darkly entertaining ... many cool Didion-esque apercus ... Zeh tells the story with partial omniscience through Britta and develops a fine character study while exploring the challenges and ironies of being a wife and mother while waterboarding at the office ... Spooks, codes, kidnapping, plot, and counterplot—it gets complicated but remains strangely low on violence given the grim premise ... A thoughtful political thriller with a provocative sense of humor.
... intriguing ... Britta’s search for an explanation will keep readers turning the pages. Not every detail rings true, but Zeh makes it easy to suspend disbelief in this cold-blooded and macabre future.