Today, I’m delighted to be the first stop on the blog tour for the Wellcome Book Prize 2017. This year’s winner will be announced in London on Monday 24th April – sadly I won’t be able to go to the ceremony – I’ll be doing my first aid training at school, instead of getting on the train into London that afternoon. Still, first aid is an appropriate activity, as the prize is awarded for the best book about health and medicine – in the broadest sense.
In the run up to the ceremony, this weekend there will be two wonderful events on Saturday and Sunday with several of the shortlisted authors participating. For full details of these, visit the WBP website here. The wonderful shortlist below contains a mix of fiction, memoir and non-fiction.
- ‘How to Survive a Plague’ by David France non-fiction
- ‘When Breath Becomes Air’ by Paul Kalanithi non-fiction
- ‘Mend the Living’ by Maylis de Kerangal trans. Jessica Moore fiction
- ‘The Tidal Zone’ by Sarah Moss fiction
- ‘The Gene’ by Siddhartha Mukherjee non-fiction
- ‘I Contain Multitudes’ by Ed Yong non-fiction
Each stop on the blog tour is picking one of the books to champion. I chose…
Mend the Living by Maylis de Kerangal
translated by Jessica Moore
My review was originally written for Shiny New Books, when the novel was first published in the UK in April 2016 by Maclehose Press. It is essential that you know that it was published with a different translator (Sam Taylor) in the USA, under the title The Heart.
We are concerned only with the UK translation by Jessica Moore, which was longlisted for the International Man Booker Prize 2016. It was originally published in France in 2014 as Réparer les vivants, where it won prizes.
Here is what one of the judges of this year’s prize, Di Speirs, has to say about the novel:
“Mend the Living is a brave book, a highly original and ambitious novel which traces the medical drama and emotional turmoil of a heart transplant in daring, lyrical prose. Concentrated across the span of a single day, Maylis de Kerangal succeeds in telling a gripping, cinematic story while revealing the intricate care, the tensions and the heartbreak of life-saving medical science.”
Mend the Living is an intellectual novel full of medical terms with few concessions for the reader, but once you get into the author’s particular style, it will hook you as firmly as any thriller, yet keep your brain totally engaged.
The novel begins with a single sentence that sprawls over an entire page. It introduces us to Simon Limbeau – and his heart:
What it is, Simon Limbeau’s heart, this human heart, from the moment of birth when its cadence accelerated while other hearts outside were accelerating too, hailing the event, no one really knows; what it is, this heart, what has made it leap, swell, sicken, waltz light as a feather or weigh heavy as a stone, what has stunned it, what has made it melt – love; […] and on this night – a night without stars – while it was bone-crackingly cold on the estuary […] this heart was sounding the regular rhythm of an organ at rest, a muscle slowly recharging – a pulse of probably less than fifty beats per minute – when a mobile phone alarm went off at the foot of a narrow bed, the echo of a sonar inscribing the digits 5.50 a.m. in luminescent bars on the touchscreen, and everything suddenly shot ahead.
Twenty-year-old Simon goes surfing with his two mates early one morning. The surf is up and we experience his sheer exhilaration as he rides the wave, gets pulverised by the water’s ferocity, it ‘crushes him as it liberates him, saturates his muscular fibres, his bronchial tubes, oxygenates his blood’; yet he paddles out to do it again and again. (I couldn’t help but think of the Guinness ‘surfer’ advert from a few years ago!)
You start reading this book knowing that Simon will die and that his heart will live on – that’s not a spoiler. Yet it is a shock to find out that the accident in which he will be critically injured doesn’t occur in the surf – but in the van with his mates on the way home. Simon was the one sitting in the middle without a seatbelt. It is his mother, Marianne, who gets the sad news that her son lies in a deep coma in hospital – it’s irreversible – like Simon’s tattoo which she hadn’t wanted him to have, ‘the word comes back to her like a boomerang: irreversible.’
The heart stopping is no longer the sign of death, from now on it’s the cessation of brain function that is the indication. In other words: if I don’t think anymore therefore I am no more.
For us this reversal of Descartes’ famous proposition is clear, but to Simon’s parents it takes time to sink in. Yet, soon they will give their consent for his organs to be harvested for transplantation, much to the relief of the transplant coordinator, nurse Thomas Remige.
The medical procedures surrounding organ donation and transplant and the jobs of all the doctors and nurses are detailed, necessarily viscerally described, yet in a non-sensational manner. The author allows enough of the medics’ personalities to come through the medical process to fascinate further and fill you with hope that Simon’s heart will live on. From Doctor Revol who admits Simon and the nurse Cornelia Owl who is new to the ICU, to the surgical team who fly in to harvest the heart to take back from Le Havre to Paris and singer Thomas, we experience their day, alongside that of Simon’s heart.
It is later in the story that we will meet the intended recipient of Simon’s heart, Claire, an older woman with heart failure. She has moved to a dark and claustrophobic apartment near the hospital to be at hand when the call she hopes for comes. She is understandably apprehensive about the emotional consequences of the transplant.
Her surgeon will be Mr Harfang, who hails from a dynasty of surgeons and is a cutter extraordinaire, a celebrity in the heart surgery world. He is the only character that grates of slight cliché in this novel, yet you know that Claire will be in good hands.
The breathless prose of Maylis de Kerangal rolls through this novel like the surf at the start, in lengthy, multi-claused, almost stream of consciousness sentences which are rarely unfocused. In their emotional investment, they vibrate with the rhythms of the still beating heart at the centre of the story. Life and death, living and grieving, ebb and flow around the medical drama.
There is an epic quality to this tragic story in which Simon is a hero, cut down in his prime. A French reading guide for this novel suggests comparison with the historic French tradition of Chansons de geste – epic songs of heroism, like the Song of Roland who dies a martyr’s death in battle. I feel this comparison is a little stretched, but I do like the concept.
Maylis de Kerangal’s translator, Jessica Moore, has done an incredible job to render her myriad phrases from French to English. The translator’s note after the novel is fascinating – discussing the author’s precise choices of names for all the characters; her ‘language hold-up’ style of writing; the complex vocabulary she uses. One word that struck me was ‘sagittal’ used to describe Simon’s view of the cliffs as he waited for the wave to come, this medical term means a line bisecting the human body vertically. I loved this metaphysical experiment of applying medical language to the world surrounding Simon’s heart.
And finally, the book has been made into a film ‘Heal the Living’ directed by Katell Quillévéré, which was shown at the Toronto Film Festival and Venice Biennale last year. There’ll be a preview screening with a panel discussion at the Curzon Bloomsbury tonight – if you like French films and you’re in London. See here for more info. Meanwhile, I shall leave you with the trailer – it looks brilliant: