Book choice: Mend the living


By Maylis de Kerangal

Translated by Jessica Moore

MacLehose Press: £14.99 paperback, 2016

Review by Dr Greg Dollman, MDDUS medical adviser

TRANSLATED from the French, Mend the living tells the story of a young man’s heart – literally the beating organ in his chest. It is the latest award-winning novel from Maylis de Kerangal.

We meet Simon Limbeau’s heart as its owner sleeps, “a muscle slowly recharging – a pulse of probably less than fifty beats per minute”, only hours before Simon is declared brain dead in an automobile accident, “unconscious when the ambulances arrived, heart still beating”. Later, as Simon’s body is returned to his family we pick up the story of his heart which “contracts, a shudder, then moves with nearly imperceptible tremors, but if you come closer, you can see a faint beating, and bit by bit the organ begins to pump blood through the body, and it takes its place again, then the pulsations become regular, strangely rapid, soon forming a rhythm...”

This is the first heartbeat of Claire Méjan’s new heart. This is a story of a heart transplant – but what makes this novel truly unique is de Kerangal’s use of language.

It seems most appropriate, then, to use de Kerangal’s own words, words that echo the rhythm of the human heart, to describe her novel. The sentences leap, swell, sicken, “waltz light as a feather” or “weigh heavy as a stone”. Reading the novel is at times as beautifully simple as a rhythmic pulse, at others as frustratingly complex as electrophysiology. Pages pass without a full stop. The novel races, then slows, thumps then murmurs, always steadily progressing to an end.

The names in the novel have been chosen carefully. Birds, flight, tragedy and fixity are themes of this story of the heart and tragic loss. Simon’s girlfriend is Juliette. The nurse who watches Simon’s passage from life to death is Cordelia Owl. And Simon, himself, is a man in the shadows, a man in limbo.

De Kerangal calls her seemingly-endless sentences “language hold-up”. In her translator’s note, Jessica Moore elaborates on the author’s “inventive use of rare words and concrete vocabularies… to approach the very tactile, grounded aspects of life in prose that astounds or makes strange, shimmering, beautiful”.

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