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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


The Heart
(Mend the Living)

Maylis de Kerangal

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase The Heart

Title: The Heart
Author: Maylis de Kerangal
Genre: Novel
Written: 2014 (Eng. 2016)
Length: 242 pages
Original in: French
Availability: The Heart - US
Mend the Living - UK
Mend the Living - Canada
Réparer les vivants - Canada
Mend the Living - India
Réparer les vivants - France
Die Lebenden reparieren - Deutschland
Riparare i viventi - Italia
Reparar a los vivos - España
  • French title: Réparer les vivants
  • US title: The Heart
  • UK/Canada title: Mend the Living
  • US edition translated by Sam Taylor
  • UK/Canada edition translated by Jessica Moore

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Our Assessment:

A- : very well done

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Le Figaro . 15/1/2014 Astrid De Larminat
The Guardian A 9/2/2016 Lydia Kiesling
The Guardian . 5/3/2016 M. John Harrison
The Independent . 18/2/2016 Amanda Hopkinson
Irish Times A- 6/2/2016 Eileen Battersby
NZZ A+ 6/8/2015 Georg Renöckl
The NY Times . 29/2/2016 Jennifer Senior
The NY Times Book Rev. . 14/12/2016 Priya Parmar
Wall St. Journal . 5/2/2016 Sam Sacks

  From the Reviews:
  • "Maylis de Kerangal, en bonne romancière, se garde de donner des réponses aux questions capitales que pose le prélèvement d'organe; mais elle les soulève avec une acuité terrible. Une évidence s'impose à la lecture: l'homme n'est pas un pur esprit, le corps, c'est aussi de l'âme." - Astrid De Larminat, Le Figaro

  • "De Kerangal crams an enormous amount of insight and information into this brief span of time. The novel contains a quantity of fairly straightforward reportage about the way that organ donation works (in France) on administrative, logistical and clinical levels. (...) But the authorís larger project is the articulation of the enormities that surround any medical event, any death. (...) The effect is heartbreaking; Iíve seldom read a more moving book." - Lydia Kiesling, The Guardian

  • "De Kerangalís structures are unflinchingly efficient. Scenes unroll like the labelled sections of a synopsis, converting the fierce inevitabilities of organ donation -- its fine balance of emotion, ethics and pragmatism -- into a filmically powerful narrative. The author is as implacable as circumstance. Thatís what the subject requires, and itís one measure of her ability. The other is her voice, a long, rolling swash, warm, sensuous and human, which invites you into life." - M. John Harrison, The Guardian

  • "For de Kerangal, language is always paramount. We know no more about each character than is strictly essential for the purposes of the narrative. (...) (A) novel that goes to the heart of what it means to be a human being." - Amanda Hopkinson, The Independent

  • "Mend the Living examines the emotive subject of organ donation. Yet for all the ethics and pragmatism involved, de Kerangal avoids polemic and never loses sight of the humanity. (...) Though the exuberance of her use of the continuous present tense will present a challenge to intending translators, she creates the sensation of being there, intently watching, describing every gesture. (...) This is a daunting book that it will resound close -- perhaps too close -- for many readers." - Eileen Battersby, Irish Times

  • "Dieses Buch ist so gut, dass man es nicht uneingeschränkt empfehlen kann: Maylis de Kerangals Roman Die Lebenden reparieren wartet zwar mit einem mitreissenden Leseerlebnis auf, man wird sich danach mit hoher Wahrscheinlichkeit aber auch ziemlich mitgenommen fühlen. <...) Die Lebenden reparieren ist nicht nur das ergreifende Protokoll eines viel zu frühen Todes und seiner unmittelbaren Folgen, sondern auch eine Hymne an die körperliche Lust am Leben in all ihren Schattierungen, wie man sie in dieser Intensität schon lange nicht mehr gelesen hat." - Georg Renöckl, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "Ms. de Kerangalís long, rolling sentences pulse along in systolic thumps, each beat punctuated by a comma; theyíre packed with emotional intensity and florid imagery, and theyíve been superbly translated by Sam Taylor." - Jennifer Senior, The New York Times

  • "The story unfolds in an intricate lacework of precise detail. Each character is introduced in particle form, and then the details compound until a wholeness is reached, a person takes shape and steps forward. (...) And in another register, there is the language of the heart itself. The writing returns us again and again to this lyric muscle." - Priya Parmar, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Though she doesnít shy from expressions of grief, a spirit of amazement infuses her prose. As in her exuberant 2010 novel Birth of a Bridge -- also about a bold modern enterprise, in this case the construction of a suspension bridge -- her dominant key is wonder. But where Birth of a Bridge erected grand edifices of baroque description, the writing in The Heart has a hurtling, onrushing quality that makes you think of blood roaring through the vascular system." - Sam Sacks, Wall Street Journal

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

[Note: this review is based on Sam Taylor's (US) translation, The Heart, not Jessica Moore's (UK/Canada) translation, Mend the Living.]

       The Heart is a transplant novel. The story, essentially covering little more than a twenty-four-hour span, of a heart beating in one healthy young body that winds up beating in another body and everything (well, a lot) that happens along the way.
       The original French title (and the UK/Canadian one, and the one used in all the other translations ...) is taken from a Chekhov play (Platonov): "Что делать, Николай ? / Хоронить мертвых и починять живых !" -- translated by Taylor (it's mentioned in the novel) as: "What shall we do, Nicholas ? Bury the dead and mend the living". In fact, little of either takes place over the course of the novel: young Simon is not buried, and most of the mending, whether physical (as in the patients who receive his organs) or otherwise (his parents and girlfriend coming to terms with his death) is only in its early stages here. What Kerangal focuses on is the transition(s).
       It begins with Simon's death: an avid surfer, he heads out with two friends early one morning to get in some spectacular surfing. He doesn't die in a surfing accident, but rather on the way home. And he doesn't die immediately -- not with the finality of what we generally think of as "dying".
       Early on Kerangal has one of her doctor's recall the paradigm-shifting recognition of so-called brain death, Mollaret and Goulon's 1959 concept of the coma dépassé:

Even now, the enormity of their announcement stupefies him. Because what Goulon and Mollaret said that day could be summarized in a single phrase that was like a cluster bomb exploding in slow motion: the moment of death is no longer to be considered as the moment the heart stops, but the moment when cerebral function ceases.
       As a consequence, the possibility of harvesting organs from the 'dead'-but-physically-still-viable gained acceptance, paving the way for much of modern organ transplantation -- especially, of course, of those otherwise (and previously) untransplantable organs (a kidney transplant is possible from a donor who remains alive after the procedure; a heart transplant obviously isn't).
       Young and otherwise healthy Simon is an ideal organ-donor-candidate -- his brain was totaled in the accident, but pretty much everything else remained in good working order. Hooked up to some machines, they can keep him (and his organs) going -- albeit simply as a vegetable, without any hope of recovery -- for a while.
       The novel begins with him and his friends, in his final hours. His accident sets into motion a course of various events, from his parents being informed and first his mother's and then (when he's finally reached) his father's devastation to the hospital protocols triggered at various stages, from the initial recognition that they have a viable donor to getting the parents' approval for Simon's organs being harvested and donated (since he's of age this is actually somewhat murky territory, as it seems that the hospital doesn't need the parents' consent and, unless he gave explicit instructions to the contrary, they're pretty much free to harvest away) to the actual surgical procedures.
       Kerangal's story moves back and forth across the various people touched by Simon's death -- family; the doctors, nurses, and administrators in their various roles. She's very good at this, her scenes penetrating and revealing, honing in on various individuals, with overlap limited to where their paths and stories intersect. Character background is kept at just the right level -- limited but sufficient -- while a variety of incidental preoccupations (hoping for a cellphone call; the Italy-France football match that night) also add a realistic element. It is a lot of characters to juggle, and arguably some get short shrift; in completing the transplant-tale, Kerangal also keeps the number of story-lines down by only focusing on one organ-recipient (getting the heart), even as Simon's lungs, kidneys, and liver are also destined for other bodies.
       The novel is written in the present tense, which makes for a sense of great immediacy (though admittedly, at least in the English, this also lends it an odd passivity -- striking given how emotional and action-packed, in many ways, the story itself is). The novel is cinematic in its presentation, the scenes unfolding precisely, the story advancing like the clockwork which the medical professionals are so attentive to (every minute matters, but there is also a great effort not to (needlessly) rush anything). But this isn't clinically documentary fiction, it isn't a screenplay-account: Kerangal adeptly uses style and language in allowing her story -- and all these stories -- to unfold.
       Even the simplest incident or observation often reverberates -- an idea Kerangal already puts in the reader's mind in how she brings one of the doctors on the scene:
     He enters the department by pushing the door open with the flat of his hand, so hard it beats back and forth several times after he has gone.
       The Heart is a novel full of such after-echoes -- most obviously at its very heart (Simon's).
       Detailed, but not too technical, The Heart offers a vivid tour of the transplantation-procedure, beginning (someone winds up brain dead) to end (the actual organ removal and transplantation), and is especially strong on the human factors -- how parents, facilitators, and medical personnel handle such delicate matters.
       Kerangal handles this material very well, her tone not documentary-neutral but also not giving in to pathos (as it easily could). It is a sympathetic and understanding account, while she avoids being judgmental. She conveys all the mix of emotions and rationalizations that this extreme situation brings with it -- an impressive day-in-the-life of a group of people touched by these extraordinary circumstances.
       The Heart is an exceptionally good novel; Kenrangal does almost everything very well, and the lapses of language or characterization are fairly few and mild. But this is a transplant novel. A medical novel, with a tragedy at its heart. It's not so much that it isn't for the squeamish -- Kerangal does describe some of the medical procedures in detail, but here she is appropriately clinical, and it's hardly very gory -- but many readers might find the story unsettling and disturbing, given that it deals so closely with death and the organs from a loved one's body being harvested. In real life, too, of course, such a situation would seem too much and too hard to handle so quickly -- that's part of what Kerangal wants (and manages) to convey -- but that doesn't make it easy reading.

- M.A.Orthofer, 7 February 2016

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The Heart: Reviews: Other books by Maylis de Kerangal under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of French literature

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About the Author:

       French author Maylis de Kerangal was born in 1967.

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© 2016 the complete review

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