“The Heart” by Maylis de Kerangal

The Heart.jpg

As a book lover, a strong recommendation for a book from someone you greatly respect is impossible to ignore, and that is how I came to read the book, The Heart – it was recommended by none other than Bill Gates (in a recent issue of Time magazine). Not that Bill Gates is a literary expert, but as the co-founder and former CEO of Microsoft, one of world’s most successful companies, and more recently, as the leader of the Gates Foundation, a philanthropic organization that he started with his wife, his book recommendations are certainly noteworthy. According to his blog – in which he has a dedicated section for books that he recommends – he mostly reads non-fiction but read The Heart, a novel, on the recommendation of his wife, who told him it was different from other books.

It certainly is. At its essence, The Heart is the story of a heart transplant. The heart in question belongs to a young man, Simon, just twenty years old, who meets with a fatal accident one day on the way back from an early morning surfing expedition with his friends. It was just a matter of chance that he was sitting in the middle and not wearing a seat belt. His friends, who were wearing seats belts, were also seriously injured in the accident, but they survive. The story of the  heart transplant is told through the lens of all the people directly involved in the process – Simon’s parents, who are utterly and completely devastated but eventually give their consent to the donation of his organs; the doctor and the nurse in charge of Simon at the ICU in the hospital where Simon is brought in after the accident; the liaison for the organ donation; the surgeon and nurse team who actually harvest the heart and transport it to the hospital where a recipient is being prepped to receive it; and finally, the recipient herself, Claire, a middle-aged woman whose own heart is failing rapidly and for whom a successful heart transplant is her only shot at survival.

The Heart is unapologetically a tragedy. There is no attempt to find any kind of silver lining in the situation—what can there be in the face of a young man dying so abruptly at the prime of his life? About the only positive thing in the story is the fact that Simon’s parents consent to his organs being harvested for donation, and we get to see firsthand the impact of the donation of one of these organs – his heart – and how it could potentially save the life of someone who would otherwise have died of heart failure. Other than this, the book is heart-breaking all the way through — it captures the shock and devastation of Simon’s parents so vividly and in so much detail that anyone who has lost a close family member will be able to identify completely with how they feel. In contrast to the grieving parents, it also shows how the doctors and nurses stoically go about their work — they have got to do what they do to keep our hospitals going, healing the people they can, and trying their best to save even those that they can’t.

Unlike most novels, The Heart is not a story that is told in a straightforward manner. The usual plot lines are simply not there. While you would expect the story to be primarily centered on Simon’s parents and on Claire, exploring their thoughts and feelings — perhaps with some profound insights on life — the book actually captures the background and personalities of each of the key people involved in the transplant. While this was interesting, I found that it seemed to detract from the overall impact and cohesiveness of the story — it was so broad that it just didn’t seem to come together. Also, some of these people got only a single chapter in the book for their story while others got several, and it wasn’t clear as to why that was the case. The Heart also goes into extensive, and sometimes excruciating, detail about the science and medical aspects of heart transplants — details that I didn’t particularly want or care to know about. Another point of departure for The Heart is the writing style, which is different and takes some getting used it. Sentences seem to go on and on, sometimes even for entire paragraphs, which, in turn, are often longer than a page.

In conclusion, I found The Heart an interesting book, with some aspects of it that were brilliant — notably in capturing the nightmare of a parent dealing with the sudden and irreversible loss of their child — but others that I could not really appreciate. Perhaps, I am too much of a traditionalist when it comes to novels to appreciate a book that is so unconventional.

Getting back to Bill Gates who strongly recommended this book, you can read his take on it at https://www.gatesnotes.com/Books/The-Heart.

The Heart
Author: Maylis de Kerangal (Translated from French by Sam Taylor)
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (English edition)
Publication Date: 2016 (Originally published in French in 2014)

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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