The Heart by Maylis de Kerangal follows one day – 24 hours – in the life of a heart.
One Saturday at dawn, 19 year-old Simon Limbres goes surfing with his friends on a beach in France. En route back home, the driver falls asleep and crashes into a guardrail, instantly rendering Simon brain-dead. What follows from there in de Kerangal’s gorgeous novel is the path that leads from the heart still beating in Simon’s chest to its transplant into a recipient 24 hours later.
The Heart is a meticulous, moving depiction of organ donation from many perspectives: the doctor who declares the donor dead, the donor’s family, the organ coordination nurse, the surgeons who participate in the organ removal, and the recipient. This is not an easy book; it is at times extremely painful and sad, not to mention bloody. But it is also fascinating. Do organs take with them anything of their original owners – their memories, their personality? How does one convince a family to allow their deceased loved one to donate their organs in the absence of a specific directive, when they are awash in new, raw grief? What is it like to receive an organ that was in another person’s body just four hours earlier?
I have always been interested in organ donation, and when I saw The Heart written up in The Washington Post, I knew I wanted to read it. It was very informative, especially on the medical front. But I had no idea it would be so beautifully written. The Heart is translated from the French by Sam Taylor, but even in English it is just a gorgeous book. I love how de Kerangal changes perspectives so fluidly, and her descriptions are exquisite. This is not a book to skim or absorb quickly! It should be savored, each word treasured and digested.
Heartbreaking: Simon’s mother, when deciding whether to allow the harvesting of his organs, thinking about his heartbeat through various stages of his childhood: “Simon’s heart, a round belly rising gently at the bottom of a portable crib; the bird of night terrors flapping distraught inside a child’s chest; the staccato drumbeat syncopated with Anakin Skywalker’s destiny; the riff under the skin when the first wave rises – feel my pecs, he said to her one evening…”.
I loved The Heart, even if I didn’t race through it or stay up late to finish it. I suspect it will be one of my standout reads of 2016.