Book review: Mend the Living

Reading this book is like experiencing the act of surfing yourself, in successive crashing waves. 

Maylis de Kerangal

MacLehose, €18.90

THE story opens with three teenage boys going surfing at 6am — before the calamity of a road accident on the way home irrevocably alters lives within 24 hours.

What epitomises this book is its momentum. 

Imagine running the length of a rugby pitch, your team in a line alongside you, and you are racing towards the goal posts, each passing the ball to the other, all the while propelled towards a culmination.

Transfer that momentum to a hospital, to lives on the brink, their loved ones, to the people responsible for changing those lives — and you have a sense of this book.

Imagine the ball is Simon Limbeau’s heart, a heart that has felt the raptures of young love (he left his girlfriend’s bed to go surfing) and wonder what else ‘made it leap, swell, sicken, waltz, what has stunned it, made it melt, what it has filtered, recorded, archived, nearly a hundred thousand times every day.’ 

This is a heart plucked at the height of a boy’s aliveness. 

No wonder the doctors call it ‘mint’.

Imagine being pitched, along with Simon’s parents, Sean and Marianne, into the maelstrom of grief, then flung back into swirling currents of hospital activity.

Reading this book is like experiencing the act of surfing yourself, in successive crashing waves. 

De Kerangal uses long sentences, fractured by commas, and a litany of details so specific and vivid, you are the teenage boy, skin studded with acne, experiencing ‘two beats of terror and desire, explosiveness of the rush, arms strongly notching the wave.’ 

The language is surprising, eloquent, full of poetry and new words: a ‘prognathous jaw’; ‘sagittal slice of cliff’, ‘vibritile silence’, ‘abulic body’.

When Marianne hears about her son’s accident, ‘a peninsula slowly tears itself from the continent and drifts into the open . . . ’ De Kerangal’s description of the processes of a mother’s grief is both delicate and harrowing: ‘What she wants is some place to wait, a place to exhaust time.’

The recently separated Sean and Marianne inadvertently witness Cordelia Owl, a nurse, talking to their son who is in a coma, though they have already been told he’s brain dead.

And yet, the momentum must race on, because there are organs to be harvested, lives to be saved.

De Kerangal has done her research. We learn about how the heart can lower to under 40 beats a minute at rest. 

We learn about valves, flapgates, pulsations. Precise, medical, encyclopedic terminology replaces the earlier emotional language of the heart.

Switch to surgeons and then to potential recipients — and imagine the complex interlacings, each path crossing another in a network of varying motives, intentions and perspectives.

Thomas Remige has to inform the parents about their son’s death and persuade them to allow his organs to be donated. 

Marthe Carrare has to choose the lucky recipients of his liver, lungs, kidneys and heart. An array of other medical staff have their own petty egos and the distractions of their personal lives.

Claire wonders who she is receiving a heart from. And she is terrified.

And there’s a moment given to Simon, before his heart is taken, that had me putting down the book to shed some tears.

De Kerangal’s Mend the Living sensitively — and unforgettably — visits every angle of the prism of what constitutes our essence.

Beautifully translated from the French by Jessica Moore, this book, like a beating heart, moves through a gamut of ethics and emotions, procedures and selection, until it breathlessly reaches the climax, 24 hours later.


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