by Maylis De Kerangal
A novel translated by Sam Taylor
A bestseller in France, Maylis De Kerangal's The Heart is a fictionalized account of a heart transplant. Readers meet the donor first, twenty-year-old Simon Limbres, who rises from his warm bed predawn to surf a winter sea with two buddies. It's not the cold that kills him, not a surfing accident, but one of his friends, the driver who, warmed by his van's heater on the way home, falls asleep at the wheel.
The first few chapters are so intense they can almost be swallowed whole, partly due to the shock of a young, healthy man's death, and partly due to the reader’s discovery of the author's stunning prose. The language she employs (which was capably translated to English by Sam Taylor) is at once concise and impossibly descriptive, and so poetically rendered that it touches a chord perhaps unexpected. Here's an excerpt with Simon surfing toward shore:
He lets out a yell as he takes this first ride, and for a moment of time he is in a state of grace—a horizontal vertigo: he is level with the world and feels as if he is coming out of it, part of its flux—the space closing in on him, crushing as it liberates, saturating his muscle fibers, his bronchial tubes, oxygenating his blood. The wave unfolds in a vague temporality—slow or fast, imppossible to tell—suspendng each second until the surfer ends up pulverized, a senseless heap of flesh. And it's incredible but, no sooner has Simon Limbres crashed onto bruising rocks in the gush of the climax than he is turning around and heading back out, without even a glance at the land or the fleeting figures glimpsed in the foam where the sea hits the earth, surface against surface; he paddles back out to the open sea, his arms windmilling fast, plowing a way to that threshold where it all begins, where it all gets going.
The characters are numerous yet authentic. There's Pierre Révol, head of the ICU unit where Simon is taken after the car crash; Cordélia Owl, an ICU nurse with hickeys on her neck and love on her mind; Simon's family: his mother, Marianne, father Sean, sister Lou and girlfriend Juliette, all heart-broken, stunned; twenty-nine-year-old Thomas Rémige, a nurse trained to coordinate organ and tissue removal for the country, a man who sings loudly enough to make the window blinds vibrate, loudly enough for the dead to take solace; Marthe Carrare, a lonely hospital employee authorized to access national data on organ transplants ; Claire Mé jan a woman in her early sixties, desperately hanging on as she waits for a new heart, marking days in a dreary apartment she's rented in order to be closer to the hospital; Emmanuel Harfang, heart doctor, devoted cyclist and descendant of a famed Harfang family of doctors—conceited, probably, appropriately; Virgilio Breva, heart doctor, a bear of a man with a weakness for Rose, his difficult and explosive woman who has no patience with his love for soccer or the necessity of his disappearing now and then to perform surgery when she wants him at home.
When the mix of personalities converge in the operating and waiting rooms or grieve at home, the atmosphere is thick with individual tensions and distractions. These are the places where Kerangal expertly completes the story she has skillfully crafted. It's a notable book both for its realism and the author's impressive style. I'd recommend it to anyone.
Reviewed by Sue Ellis!
Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016
Perhaps author Maylis De Kerangal's greatest success in writing The Heart is the research she did into clinical medicine. Her research touches every aspect of the story and in itself is such a fascinating addition to the basically simple tale that it turns the story into art. I loved the last chapter, how it deals with the surgical teams' clean-up of the theater, mundane things like changing clothes, splashing water on their faces, heading out to grab a bite. It's shocking, almost, that one person lost his life and another benefited from the donation of his heart, all between dawn and 5:49 A.M.