The Heart by French writer Maylis De Kerangal is exactly what it says it is: a dive into the multitude of lives that surround an organ donation. Unflinching and stark, this novel takes its readers into every crevice of the process of donation. We travel down each vein, into the inner depths of the many lives that will be changed by this experience.
De Kerangal’s novel is clear in its support of organ donation, but simultaneously opposes our culture’s narrative of this procedure. Rather than showing the miracle of a donation, the readers are first shown the torturous decision-making process. We see the protagonist, Simon, in his brutal accident. We are shown another character, Thomas Remige, as he confronts his role as a clinician—he must be compassionate, yet objective, and convince the family without any form of persuasion. Time bends as we follow Thomas’s storyline. We are shown the exacting time limitations for the immediate needs of others, but also the necessary, deliberate slowing of time for the grieving family. While the benefits and decisions about the organ’s next move are instantaneous, the family’s time almost stops completely. Thomas is acutely aware of the memories that will be associated with the decision and the months and years that will impact the family’s choices, and he has no intention of making the family feel coerced into donating Simon’s organs through a rushed conversation.
In this way, De Kerangal’s depiction of the family perspective is brutally honest and open in every form. However, the family’s journey to making this crucial decision about donation respectfully encompasses their grief and their need for a simultaneous closure and continuation of life. We see the way their family is sewn together through the wreckage of tragedy. Not only does De Kerangal describe the emotional effects of organ donation, but she also brings a level of clarity to the physical act of harvesting organs.
That kind of examination allows the reader to shift from one space to another almost seamlessly, from the slow, muddled process of a family grieving and Thomas’s instantaneous and urgent messaging to the factual, the sterile, and the professional removal process. Combining these opposing attitudes and realities about organ donation immerses the reader into this messy and irreverent space. She has captured the essence of humanity and of the continuation of life within the death of this young man.
In the end, the author moves the reader poetically and seamlessly into a new space—one of sacred mourning that once again underscores the sacrifice. The author completely turns the ancient practice of heart-burial on its head, revealing a modernized perspective that simultaneously saves lives and gives the highest respect to the dead. Rather than keeping the heart separately interred in a place of worship, the heart is now "interred" in the most sacred space it can be given: another person's body. The heart’s consciousness and soul are symbolically kept safe and "live on" and in this way, De Kerangal takes a practice that may seem unnatural to some and puts it in line with revered practices, reserved only for kings and poets.
The Heart is a perspective-changing experience. De Kerangal transports us to the depths of grief, situating us elbow deep in the bloody body of a teenager, and then brings us up to the stars, to the heavens, and ultimately to the frailty and beauty of life and death--Katelyn Connor
Katelyn Connor is a National Sales Associate at Penguin Random House. She completed her degree in Narrative Medicine in May, 2016.