Review by

Mend the Living (The Heart)

A question of life and death

I was left speechless by this astounding novel, the story of a young man’s death and the dilemmas around organ donation. It reads like a thriller and had me pinned to the chair. Maylis de Kerangal fast-paced prose is intense and unusual, and, admittedly, took a few pages getting used to, but once you find the rhythm of her writing you’ll be unable to stop. An absolute must-read!

Simon Limbeau is 19, high on life and in search of the perfect wave. A dark, cold February morning Simon and two friends, surf boards piled in the back of their van, head for the beaches of Le Havre. As they wait for the daylight, the boys huddle together in their car, beautifully described by de Kerangal.

The pages of the magazine brightens as the sky pales outside, divulge their colour chart of blues, like this pure cobalt that assaults the eyes, and greens so deep you’d thing they were painted in acrylic, here and there the wake of a surfboard appears, tiny white line on the phenomenal wall of water, the boys blink, murmur, that shit is epic, that’s sick, then Chris shifts to check his phone, the screen illuminates him from below and turns his face blue, accentuates the bone structure – prominent brow, prognathous jaw, mauve lips – while he reads the day’s forecast out loud…

On the way back their van veers of the road and crashes, leaving Simon brain dead. I’m not spoiling much by saying this as it happens within the first few pages of the novel. The question now facing his devastated parents, Marianne and Sean, is what to do with his body? The sensitivity with which de Kerangal describes this enormous dilemma, the heartbreak of his parents and the doctors’ balancing act between compassion and medical interest, without falling into sentimentality, is nothing short of impressive.

The meeting between the medical personnel and the parents with their wildly different perspectives is stirring. For the medics, Simon’s body is a chance to save someone else, for his parents he’s their beloved child. For the doctors and nurses, it’s just another day at the office, their domestic lives going on in the background (why isn’t my boyfriend calling?), while Simon’s parents are going through the worst 24 hours of their lives.

But even though these three share the same space, participate in the same time period, nothing on this planet could be further apart than these two beings in pain and this young man who sits before them with the goal – yes, the goal – of obtaining their consent to recover their child’s organs.

De Kerangal raises all kinds of ethical questions, dilemmas created by advances in modern medicine. When is a person dead? How long do you keep a brain dead person alive? How far can you push to convince someone to agree to organ donation? Which organs to take? And emotional questions: ‘What will Juliette’s love become once Simon’s heart start beating in another unknown body?’ Is a body without organs the same body?

I haven’t read this book in French, but you can’t help but get the sense that translator Jessica Moore has done fantastic job. Her background as a poet and a songwriter shines through in what surely must have been an incredibly challenging job.

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I’m usually a coward who steers away from books about people with terminal illness or people losing their child, a reality that is too gruesome to contemplate. This book somehow roped me in and wouldn’t let go and, despite its obvious sadness, there is a sense of optimism, a sense that Simon’s death, tragic as it is, at least gave life to someone else. Ultimately, ‘Bury the dead and mend the living’ rings true in this incredible novel.

Confusingly, Maylis de Kerangal’s book is published under two different titles: Mend the Living  by Maclehose Press and translated by Jessica Moore in the U.K. (230 pages) and The Heart by Farrar, Straus and Giroux and translated by Sam Taylor in the U.S. (256 pages). I read the U.K. translation. Thanks to Maclehose Press for sending me a review copy.

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