Wednesday, March 23, 2016

The Heart by Maylis de Kerangal

The tension has very quickly risen at this point on the earth's surface. The plant's leaves seem to tremble, the water in the glasses to ripple; the light in the room seems to grow suddenly brighter, making them blink, and the air to vibrate as if the motor of a centrifuge was slowly turning above their heads. Thomas is the only one to remain completely immobile, to show no emotion. Keeping his gaze steady on their pain-creased faces, ignoring the tremors of their jaws, the shaking of their shoulders, he goes on unflinchingly: The purpose of this interview is to discover and formulate the expression of the dead person's wishes [. . . ]

~from p. 101 of Advance Reader Copy (some changes may have been made to the final print version)

Early on a cold morning in France, three young surfers set out together in an aging van on a jaunt to the shore, dressing in warm gear and catching the waves until they're chilled and numb. Worn and satisfied, they pile back into the van and head home. But, tragedy strikes and one of the young men sustains unsurvivable injuries. When his family is informed, they must make the decision about what is to be done.

While physicians are mobilized in the hope that several transplants will take place and potential organ recipients are notified, the family of a vibrant young man whose life is being sustained only by machines must come to terms with their grief and make a decision in a limited amount of time. Machines can keep his heart pumping but only for a matter of hours, then it will begin to deteriorate and the hope of saving other lives will end.

The Heart by Maylis de Karangal is unexpectedly gripping. I was skeptical when I began reading, thinking it would probably end up being fairly dull, but within the first few pages I was hooked. Not only is the writing beautiful but it's also compelling enough that the pages practically flew, probably because the author did such an excellent job of portraying urgency. It quickly becomes apparent that the clock is ticking and everyone involved in the transplant process is eager for the donation process to be facilitated. It's only toward the end that you get to know the potential recipient of the young man's heart but in that brief space where her life is described, you're rooting for her, knowing that with so little time left, someone else's tragedy may be her last chance to live.

Translated from the French, I was surprised to find The Heart is not the first translation by Sam Taylor that I've read. In both cases, I found the writing was so smoothly handled that I would never have guessed the book was a translation, if not for the fact that it's mentioned on the cover and the book takes place in France. His bio says Taylor is also a published writer and that may make the difference. I've read a number of clunky, confusing translations, at least one so difficult to read that I abandoned it. Clearly, Taylor knows how to stay true to the story and the beauty of its original prose. I was impressed.

Highly recommended - Surprisingly taut, lyrical, engrossing reading. While heartbreaking because you must experience the grief the family is going through, the ending is uplifting and makes the journey worthwhile. I found it particularly interesting that the French system of organ donation requires a person who does not wish to donate to fill out a form refusing automatic donor status, although the surviving family members still may choose not to donate, the opposite to how it's done in the U.S., where you can have the donor option added to your driver's license but if you're not a donor your survivors can still choose to donate viable organs. Also of note is the fact that a French physician who declares someone dead cannot be involved in the surgical process.

Reading The Heart brought back a little of my own frustration with our inability to get my father's organs donated. When my father was declared brain dead, we asked if it would be possible to donate his organs and were told he was too old at 62. The idea of someone else being saved by your loss seems pretty powerful to me. But, it's clearly a very individual choice and I appreciated being walked through the opposite feelings.

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  1. It's hard reading books that are translated so I'm glad to hear this one was done well.

    1. I know! I desire to read more translations but sometimes they just don't work because they're so badly done. This one is so perfect it's kind of shocking.

  2. Gorgeous cover, and sounds like a compelling read.

    1. You know, I don't actually like that cover, although I have to admit it perfectly fits the story - just isn't a favorite. The Heart is excellent. I was surprised. I thought it would be a total downer. It is a difficult read but it was something that I could relate to in a way and I found it a page-turner. That really surprised me. It also ends on an upbeat note so you close the book feeling immensely satisfied.


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