Maylis de Kerangal’s The Heart (out February 9th in the U.S.) was a hit in France under the title Réparer les vivants. According to Google Translate, the one and only most accurate translator, that means “Repair Living” (?).
It starts out describing a group of boys out on a surfing trip which ends in a car accident. All of the passengers are injured, but the story focuses on Simon, who enters a coma and is declared brain dead at the hospital. For a novel that starts out with such a horrible tragedy, the victims sort of fade into the background from that point on. Simon himself becomes more object than character – he is known only through the memories his family and girlfriend have of him. And then there’s the matter of what to do with his body.
Organ donation is sort of a hot-button topic, one that a lot of people feel strongly about, so I think a thoughtful novel about the subject will find a lot of readers. My main problem with The Heart is the way it’s wired: the writing style just fell flat for me. I just can’t stand overly descriptive writing, writing that flows like water out of your hands. Kerangal chooses lush, overflowing language over characterization. The narrative mind-jumps, going from character to character, and I had trouble keeping them all apart, characters that should have been so distinct – Simon’s mother, his father, his girlfriend, his little sister. I don’t feel like I know anything at all about them. With all that, the lack of dialogue, the run-on sentences, jumping from one point to the next, I just couldn’t get a grip on this story.
If you’re a fan of ruminating literary fiction, and you enjoy the writing style, The Heart may be a great read for you. I would suggest reading the first few pages, and if the writing style seems good for you, keep going. Objectively I think the writing is impressive, but sometimes things are overwritten in such a way that it is a disservice to the story, and that’s how I felt about The Heart. I was a bit bored. After all, when I’m reading a novel, I don’t want to be impressed – I want to be taken away. The Heart did not do that for me.