Mend the Living by Maylis de Kerangal is what you might call a concept novel, a novel where the central idea is likely to be better known than the author or title (perhaps that’s why in the US a different translator has opted for The Heart). It’s easy to imagine curious readers asking for ‘that book about the heart transplant’, and it was that same curiosity that first prompted my desire to read it even before it appeared on the Man Booker International Prize long list. Its story is, on one level, simple: a young man, Simon Limbeau, dies in a traffic accident, and his heart is taken from his body to replace the ailing organ of a middle-aged woman, Claire Mejan. What makes this novel stand out, however, is not just the emotional power and originality of its concept, but the richness of its telling.
Kerangal places the heart at the centre of a chorus of characters. Not only do we encounter Simon, his mother, Marianne, and father, Sean, but we become closely acquainted with the numerous medical staff who care, first for him, and then for his heart. Each character is brought fully to life as Kerangal utilises a variety of styles, one moment utilising an authorial voice from outside the narrative, the next placing us in the character’s consciousness. When Simon is brought to the hospital, she happily addresses the reader:
“We have someone for you. A call at 10.12 a.m. Neutral, informative, the words strike. Male, six feet, 154 pounds, about twenty years old, car accident, head trauma, in a coma – we know who’s being summed up like this, we know his name: Simon Limbeau.”
Compare this to the description of his mother receiving a phone call about the accident:
“She must have screamed loudly, loudly enough in any case that the little one reappears…eyes fixed on her mother who doesn’t see her, who pants, like a dog, movements quick and face twisted, tapping furiously on her phone to call Sean who doesn’t answer – pick up, pick up, godammit! – her mother who throws clothes on in a rush…”
Gone is the certainty (“must have”), and we see echoes of modernism in the interjection of Marianne’s thoughts into the sentence. In fitting with the novel’s exploration of what we mean by life, the narrative voice exists in tension between the outer, objective and the inner, emotional. For the latter effect, Kerangal is not afraid to use long sentences (the quotation above is extracted from one containing more than 180 words). This creates a rhythm which pulses through the novel making the text itself seem alive in a novel where the irrepressible nature of life is a main theme.
The language, too, is full of life. Here Kerangal describes Marianne driving to the hospital:
“The outside universe dilated slowly, trembled even and paled as the air trembles and pales above the desert sand, above the pavements of roads heated in the sun, it changed into a fleeting far-off scenery, it whitened, nearly to the point of erasure, while inside the car Marianne drove with one hand, the other wiping away everything that flowed down her face…”
And while this is clearly a dramatic moment, Kerangal records each moment with a similar intensity, in a novel where there are no minor characters. One of the most beautiful passages of writing is a description of Rose, the girlfriend of one of the surgeons, who only appears in a scene where he is called away:
“..she’s beautiful as day, maxillaries pulsing beneath the skin of her jaw – fury – and doesn’t even look at him as she crosses and uncrosses her long arms of an ancient beauty, low to high, in order to take of her tank top, useless now, revealing a splendid bust composed of various circles – breasts, aerolae, nipples, belly navel, top of the two globes of her buttocks…”
It seems appropriate in a novel about life that every page, every moment should seem so alive. A great deal of credit for this should go to the translator, Jessica Moore – and it’s worth recalling that the Man Booker International Prize is also for translation. Any fear that the novel might be a gimmick is dispelled by the wonder of the writing. I fully expect to see Mend the Living on the short list.