Much of “The Heart,” by the French author Maylis de Kerangal, happens in a hospital. It is an unusual and often-ravishing novel, taking place over the span of 23 hours and 59 minutes. The book begins with Simon Limbres, a 19-year-old surfer boy at the peak of his vitality, soaring headlong into a windshield after a day at the beach (middle seat, no seat belt). He is rushed to the hospital; his parents are notified; his body is harvested for organs; and his heart saves the life of a 51-year-old woman.
The first half of the book belongs to Simon’s parents, who must adapt to the unimaginable. We watch Marianne and Sean as they first stare at their son in his hospital bed, forcing themselves to reconcile what they know with what they see – “a young god in repose” who still smells of the ocean and is warm to the touch.
Yet Sean and Marianne are persuaded to relinquish their son’s lungs, kidneys, liver and even his heart though at first they resist. The young nurse who steers them toward this difficult decision, Thomas Rémige, is extremely good at his job.
And this, even more than the exchange of a death for a life, is the most uncomfortable paradox of “The Heart”: What devastates one group of people thoroughly intoxicates another. Trauma is an invigorating line of work.
De Kerangal tells us little about Claire, the 51-year-old patient with myocarditis whose need for a heart is literal and immediate. We learn that she is loved by her three sons, her mother and a man in her village; she is also plagued by the thought that she can never thank the stranger who gives her a second chance to live her life.
All the readers know is that Simon’s heart is now hers. That blinking, magical dot on an ultrasound from 19 years ago, which de Kerangal describes with such tender precision on the book’s opening page, has become the blinking, magical focus of an electrocardiogram in the operating theater.
By Maylis de Kerangal, translated by Sam Taylor.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 242 pages