It starts with a description of the thing: what it does, how we relate to it, how we describe it. The heart of Simon Limbres—the character who will lose his life—is more than just the tissue and blood and valves that make it up, but a kind of catalyst for the life he has led until this day. The Heart, Maylis de Kerangal’s eighth book in French and her third to be translated into English, drops its readers into the life of Simon Limbres and documents the reverberations of his death felt within his family, community and through France. The Heart is, quite simply, breathtaking in its linguistic precision and impressive in its narrative vision, a feat of textual dexterity made visible in English by Sam Taylor's excellent translation.
This riveting novel begins in the most quotidian circumstances: Simon Limbres heads out with friends one early Saturday morning for some surfing. In these first few chapters, Kerangal focuses on the tangible, on the boys’ bodies. At this moment, she is only an observer, and carefully deploys these details to amplify the relationship between humans and nature. The boys head out into the waves, both the seriousness of the activity and the excitement tangible on the page. “Simon floats . . . Everything around him is in flux: whole sections of sea and sky appear and disappear with each eddy of the slow, heavy, wood-like surface, like cool lava. The harsh dawn burns his face and his skin tightens, his eyelashes hardening into vinyl, the lenses behind his pupils icing over as if they’d been forgotten at the back of a freezer.” Much of the story to come will amount to a deconstruction of Simon’s body, his organs discussed in isolation fromthe rest of his body, from his identity as Simon Limbres. Hours before his death, as he comes closest to nature, Simon is still bound to the outside world by virtue of his complete body. In this scene, Kerangal hints at how fragile these human bodies really are: “He lets out a yell as he takes this first ride, and for a moment of time he is in a state of grace . . . the space closing in on him, crushing as it liberates, saturating his muscle fibers, his bronchial tubes, oxygenating his blood. The wave unfolds in a vague temporality—slow or fast, impossible to tell—suspending each second until the surfer ends up pulverized, a senseless heap of flesh.”
The Heart (Réparer les vivants) is Maylis de Kerangal’s eighth book, and its stylistic dexterity is testament to Kerangal’s well-honed voice. Her first novel translated into English, Birth of a Bridge followed the lives of a community of scientists and engineers, public service workers and citizens, working together to build a bridge in a fictional California town. Ultimately, Kerangal’s novelistic gaze was trained upon the consequences of relationships within a small community. It comes as little surprise that she would do the same in The Heart, which similarly spotlights people’s motivations and interests, and how easily disparate groups can affect one another in a short amount of time.
The entire story turns on a crash. A moment of hazy inattention that sends the boys careening off the side of the road at some 50 miles per hour. In just this moment, the story no longer is Simon’s and suddenly expands to include an inevitable cast of characters: the ER doctor and nurse, Simon’s parents and loved ones, doctors from across France, patients waiting for word of an available and much-needed organ—all of these people dependent on the moment when, as Sam Taylor translates for the US edition, “suddenly everything raced out of control.” His words make us aware of the consequences of the morning early on, hours before the boys head out that fateful morning. This decision proves a striking contrast to the UK/Canada translation, where Jessica Moore describes the beginning of the day with "and everything suddenly shot ahead.” While Moore's words give the story its proper catalyst, it is Taylor who reminds us of the scattered and unintentional repercussions of death. In this larger cosmic sense, everyone's life slips through their hands. Taylor’s attention to the “race” and “control” of the plot imbue his prose with an ominous quality.
Here begins Kerangal’s magnificent feat of omniscience: she jumps from Simon’s parents, first Marianne and then Sean, to the ER doctor on duty, Pierre Révol (and eventually others):
yes, there it is, that’s death. An abrupt vision, like a hard slap in the face, but Révol does not blink, concentrating on the body-scan pictures that appear on his computer screen . . . Révol can read these images, what they say about the patient’s state and what they augur for his future; he recognizes those shapes, those marks and haloes, interprets those milky rings, deciphers those black spots, those legends and codes; he compares, checks, recommences, continues his investigation until the inevitable conclusion: Simon Limbres’s brain is dying; it is drowning in blood.
Pierre Révol’s analysis, his comfort in reading charts and more generally, the human body, come from years of experience and in turn we trust Kerangal’s portrayal because she so successfully establishes the verisimilitude we need to suspend disbelief. His well-worn knowledge makes the scene feel almost banal: it is beyond serious for Simon’s family, and no doubt for Révol as well, but it is his job, a job he has been performing for years.
Throughout all this, as if Kerangal were not orchestrating an already multi-layered scene, we learn that a major soccer game is hours away. As the doctor on duty at the Biomedical Agency, Marthe Carrare, is calling the various hospitals with patients awaiting a matching organ for transplant, she drifts away from the work at hand and fantasizes about the lives of a wealthy local family, known for producing influential doctors in nearly every field of medicine. This particular portrait of Marthe Carrare is dense with the realities of life: everything hangs in the balance, and yet she is dissatisfied with her daughter’s marriage, she is distracted by the neighboring commotion of a soccer game, she is reminded of her years in school. It is impossible for anyone to be so completely consumed by one fact, one story and as if it were her goal to reflect the multitudes of reality Kerangal gives us Marthe’s own life as a sort of respite from Simon’s.
The calm and precision and near banality of the work that Pierre, Thomas Rémige, and Marthe do is countered by the heavy emotions that Simon’s parents (Sean and Marianne) and his girlfriend, Juliette, suffer. The hospital calls Marianne once they learn who the victims of the crash are. She is half asleep but is jolted awake upon hearing Simon’s name. Rushing out of her home, she is confronted by her own emotions:
The city was sleeping, but to Marianne there was something menacing about it; she had the sailor’s fear of a calm, flat sea. It even seemed to her that the space around her was bulging slightly, as if to contain the phenomenal energy lurking inside the matter, that internal power that might easily turn to dazzling destructive power with the splitting of a few atoms.
Kerangal’s writing here is even more cinematic than it has been throughout the rest of the novel: each second, each moment is detailed with Technicolor intensity. Now, more so than at any other moment, we must pay attention. She reduces speed and narrows her focus upon Marianne, who is moments away from that release of painful energy, from confronting the death of her son. Marianne fumbles through this progress in time: there is no link between that reality wherein Simon was alive and that reality wherein he is dead. When she meets Révol, she is taken into his office and brought closer to that moment of recognition. Révol hands her coffee and searches for the right words to say.
Now Marianne closes her eyes and drinks, concentrating on the burning liquid in her mouth, dreading the first word of the first sentence—the doctor’s jaw tensing, his lips opening, stretching, teeth appearing, the end of the tongue flickering into sigh occasionally—that tragedy-soaked sentence that she knows is about to be spoken. Everything in her withdraws, stiffens, her spine pressing against the back of the (wobbly) chair, her head driven back: she would like to get out of here, run to the door and escape, or disappear through a trapdoor opening suddenly beneath her feet, so she can enter a black hole of forgetfulness, so no one in this building can find her, so she need never know anything other than the fact that Simon’s heart is still beating . . . each second is a hard won treasure.
Marianne will suffer through another rupture in reality, later when she gets a hold of her husband Sean. When he finally calls her back, she is away from the hospital, downing a gin at a local bar. She is “rendered speechless by the horror she feels at hearing that voice she loves so much, that voice familiar to her as only a voice can be, but become suddenly strange, abominably strange, because it comes from a space-time where Simon’s accident never occurred . . . it was dissonant, this voice, it disorchestrated the world, tore apart her brain: it was the voice of life before . . . she has to put an end to the anachronism of this voice.” Most of the story is dedicated to Marianne and Sean. It’s only appropriate: their pain is so tangible, so real and yet, “there is no possible translation for what they are feeling; it strikes them down in a language that precedes language.” This is grief and Kerangal perfectly narrates the paradox of it all: how universal and isolating a feeling it can be.
But the story isn't just about grief. Simon's relationships, particularly with his girlfriend Juliette is revisited. Their love is powerful and cinematic, much like Simon's death. Because it is a young love, the pain is all the more real. Marianne, the mother, wonders what will happen to this love once the heart is outside of the body. “What will become of Juliette's love when Simon's heart starts to beat inside a stranger's body?” And what of Juliette's body? She rushes to Simon's home when she hears the news, disregarding the layers of protection she might need to confront the elements. The consequences of death manifest in very real, physical ways.
soon the glass-sharp cold started to burn, she was consumed on the slope, a figurine broken into pieces, almost falling several times as she struggled to coordinate her strides, breathing badly—not at all the way Simon had taught her to breath, with no regularity, forgetting to exhale—her tibias aching and heels burning, ears popping like they did in a landing plane, and a stitch stabbing at her side
There is still so much for Sean and Marianne to do. Thomas Rémige, an ICU nurse and tissue and organ organizer for the local hospital, must pull Simon’s parents back to reality, long enough to continue his job. Consent must be granted for the organ removal: the kidneys, the liver, the lungs and the heart. In these passages Kerangal’s attention to detail and devotion to the research necessary to make this all believable shines. In this “surgical theater,” each doctor arrives and performs their act with the corresponding organ efficiently. Kerangal narrates with technical precision, employing medical terms and describing the procedures with confidence. Kerangal is as meticulous as a medical textbook and thankfully, does not rely on gruesome and bloody details (though of blood, I am sure there is plenty). Each procedure of removal lasts a few short paragraphs: the doctors rarely communicating with each other save when it is essential, and their roles are contained within them. For this brief moment, emotion is put on hold and we are standing just behind the operating table, observing like a student of medicine. The hours it takes to remove “(1) the kidneys; (2) the liver; (3) the lungs; (4) the heart” leaves every player exhausted; the seven pages of rapid-fire surgery leaves the reader exhausted as well.
When Pierre Révol sits with the two parents, he asks them how closely each of them has ever come death. Most people in the Western world are lucky enough to confront death through a grandparent, an older person, or perhaps only on TV. Yet shows like CSI and Six Feet Under are less a meditation on death and more a map of the lives of the living. Where television comes up short, literature—and most especially Maylis de Kerangal’s writing—proves its metaphysical worth: “So the dead body, a repository of unrevealed secrets, of narrative and dramatic possibilities, is ultimately used to keep death at a distance.” In The Heart, Simon Limbres’s body becomes a tool for exploration, we are confronted with consequences of death: whether steeped in sadness or hope, the consequences remain and ramify.
Alexandra Primiani is a freelance book reviewer and works in publishing. She is originally from Miami, Florida.