One day, she must find out what direction time flows in—whether it is linear or the quick circle of a hula hoop, whether it curls and loops or is coiled like the spiral of a snail’s shell, whether it can take the form of a tube wave, sucking up the sea, the entire universe in its flip side. Yes, she needs to understand what it is that makes up the passing of time.
One hour later, death clears its throat, knocks politely on the door, a moving stain, irregularly shaped, opacifying a clearer, larger shape: yes, there it is, that’s death.
-description of a CT scan
As Bill Gates noted, The Heart is “poetry disguised as a novel.” It is a 242-page love letter to words and language. De Kerangal’s sentences roll in your mouth like chocolates, melt as the eyes caress the sentences. I was enraptured with this book; however, it will not be everyone’s—or most people’s—cup of tea.
The entirety of the “action” in the book occurs in a twenty-four hour span of time as nineteen year-old Simon Limbres rises early to surf and unexpectedly meets his end returning from the waves with his two friends who survive the accident. His parents rage, whimper, and rage again until, quietly, they agree to donate his organs. To donate his heart. The book concludes as the heart is restarted in the chest of Claire, a translator with three children. This barebones action serves as the scaffolding around which de Kerangal wraps her words, conjuring the depths of grief juxtaposed with the clinical efficiency of a hospital preparing for an organ transplant. The book is driven primarily by language and character rather than plot/action.
Indeed, if The Heart is a story of something in particular, it is less the story of Simon, and more the story of the landscape of Grief. We do a disservice to Grief today. We look over it, feeling that to call attention to it would be ruder than to pretend nothing is wrong and to move on. We brush it under the rug, out of sight out of mind, but not out of feeling, out of pain. The Heart forces the reader to confront the raw grief of Simon’s parents and later, that of his first love, yet the cadence of the words soothe the jagged edges. The language is the balm on the wound. The first half of the book is best in this regard—it is most clearly the study of Grief as the reader follows Simon’s parents as they discover the new hole in their world and attempt to adjust to this new reality, despite Simon looking so very alive in the bed, still warm though no longer present. The second half of the book, while also gorgeously written, serves in some ways as an extended conclusion. If the first half is the removal of Simon’s heart, the removal of his parents’ core, then second half is the tying off and cauterizing of each vein, the preparing of the body now that life is gone. I do not say this to say that the book drags at the end, only to say that with Grief no longer center stage, the remainder of the action feels like a quiet resolution, the lone nurse preparing the body now emptied of its vital organs for burial.
It is without exaggeration that I say this is one of the most beautiful books I have ever read. I read, re-read, and re-re-read again, marveling both at de Kerangal’s skill as well as that of her translator, Sam Taylor. The Heart was originally written in French, yet even in English the cadence, the rise and fall of de Kerangal’s words is a marvel. The words flow so smoothly as to become almost hypnotic.
The Heart is for those who revel in poetry, who read and re-read sentences, deconstruct and diagram. For those who enjoy reading with a dictionary close by. The Heart is not a book to be read quickly or lightly. It is not a book for the beach or a pool. It is a book that lingers, the beat of the words slowly fading. This is not a book I recommend for everyone or, indeed, many. If you have never re-read a finely tuned sentence solely to appreciate the cadence, the way the words are chosen just so, this is not the book for you. This also isn’t your book if you are not in a place to bear a very raw representation of parental grief for a child lost far too young.
After reading (and disliking) My Name is Lucy Barton earlier this year, I assumed I was one of those people who has to have action. The Heart showed me this isn’t true—if there isn’t action I need language. The Heart has what I missed in Lucy Barton and is another book I will be purchasing for my own library.
Published February 14, 2017 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux (@fsgbooks)
Author: Maylis de Kerangal, Translator: Sam Taylor
Date read: June 26, 2017
Rating: 4 ½ Stars