Mend the Living begins with a 302-word sentence on what Simon Limbeau’s heart is. Through it, de Kerangal contemplates the metaphorical – the heart which is affected by emotion – as well as ‘the life – life of ebbs and flows, life of valves and flapgates, life of pulsations’. The sentence ends as his mobile phone alarm goes off at 5.50am and 20-year-old Limbeau leaves his girlfriend in bed and meets his friends to go surfing.
On their return to Le Havre from the beach, their van crashes.
They could easily determine that the little van was going fast, they estimated its speed at ninety-two kilometres an hour, which was twenty-two kilometres an hour over the speed limit for this section of the road, and they also determined that, for unknown reasons, it had drifted over to the left without ever coming back into its lane, hadn’t braked – no tyre marks on the asphalt – and that it had crashed into this pole at full force; they noted the absence of airbags, the van model was too old, and they could see that of the three passengers seated in the front, only two were wearing seat belts – one on each side, the driver’s and the passenger’s; finally, they determined that the third individual, sitting in the middle, had been propelled forward by the violence of the impact, head hitting the windshield; it had taken twenty minutes to pull him from the metal, unconscious when the ambulances arrived, heart still beating, and, having found his cafeteria card in the pocket of his jacket, they determined that his name was Simon Limbeau.
The novel then charts the progress from Simon being taken to the I.C.U. to the point his heart becomes that of Claire Méjan. As the heart’s journey progresses, we meet all of the people involved in transporting it from one body to another.
Two things are really impressive about this novel: the first is that de Kerangal is able to take the reader into the lives of so many people along the course of the book, catching a snapshot of them as they proceed with their part in the process of a heart transplant. However, in doing so, she manages to capture the essence of each of them and you come away from each encounter feeling as though you know the character. For example, there’s a wonderful moment when the reader meets Virgilio Breva, the heart surgeon who’s just received a ’phone call to tell him he’ll be travelling to Le Havre to harvest Simon’s heart:
The margherita splats against the apartment wall and falls to the carpet, leaving the trace of a Neopolitan sunset above the television. The young woman appraises her throw with a satisfied eye and turns back to the pile of white boxes on the counter of the open kitchen, lifts the lid of a second perfectly quadrangular box, slides the burning disc of the Supreme on to her palm, turns to face the wall, elbow bent, hand held as a tray, and with a quick extension of her arm, projects it between the room’s two windows, a new action painting, slices of curious constellation on the wall. As she’s preparing to break open the third box…a man steps out of the bathroom, glistening, and then – sensing a threat – stops short in the doorway; seeing the young woman wind up for a gesture of propulsion in his direction, he drops to the floor, pure reflex, then rolls from his belly on to his back to observe her from a low angle.
The second, as I hope you can see from the quotations, is de Kerangal’s sentences and the control she exerts over such lengthy constructions. Credit here must also go to translator Jessica Moore who’s done a superb job ensuring that these extended complex sentences retain their clarity whilst containing an impressive amount of detail.
Mend the Living is gripping. Not because it’s fast-paced and plot-driven but because the writing is perfectly measured and the construction – of sentences and plot – is balanced. Through her characters, de Kerangal considers the impact of surgery on individuals and society; death; life-changing decisions, again both societal and individual; privilege; love, and the heart. It’s not difficult to see why this novel has won ten literary awards in France.
As far as I can tell, de Kerangal only has one other novel which has been translated into English – Birth of a Bridge – which Susan at A Life in Books reviewed last year (click the title to read Susan’s review). I’ll be getting myself a copy and looking out for anything that’s available in English in the future too. Mend the Living is a triumph.
Thanks to MacLehose Press for the review copy.