Maylis de Kerangal’s Mend the Living, which won the Wellcome Book Prize in 2017, was first published in France in 2014, and has been translated from its original French by Jessica Moore. Its critical reception has been incredibly good; M. John Harrison in The Guardian writes that the novel is: ‘Filmically powerful, beautifully translated… [and] glorious’, and Astrid de Larminat in Figaro states: ‘This breathless novel has all the beauty of a Greek tragedy.’ Mend the Living was also longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2016.
Mend the Living takes place over the space of a single day, and essentially tells the story of a heart transplant. At the beginning of the novel, the heart resides in young Simon Limbeau; he is rendered braindead after a severe car accident following a beautifully evoked surfing trip. The novel’s opening sentence, which is three hundred words long, begins in the following way, and gives one a great taster of de Kerangal’s prose style: ‘What it is, Simon Limbeau’s heart, this human heart, from the moment of birth when its cadence accelerated while other hearts outside were accelerating too, hailing the event, no one really knows…’.
Following Simon’s death, de Kerangal writes: ‘… and on this night – a night without stars – while it was bone-crackingly cold on the estuary and in the Caux region, while a reflectionless swell rolled along the base of the cliffs, while the continental plateau drew back, unveiling its geological stripes, this heart was sounding the regular rhythm of an organ at rest, a muscle slowly recharging…’. De Kerangal’s prose is similarly poetic throughout, but does tend to verge upon the pretentious – with its ‘grandiloquent choreographies’, and ‘alveolar intensity’ – from time to time. It is so vivid and sensual, however, that it gives the reader the opportunity to be present in every single moment depicted. Moore’s translation is flawless; it must have taken an awful lot of work to render such long, complex sentences, and the style of prose. Of a lot of interest is Moore’s translation note; she describes the way in which she ‘grappled with Maylis’s labyrinthine phrases’.
De Kerangal captures the uncontrollable grief of Simon’s mother incredibly well: ‘… the past has grown massive all at once, a life-guzzling ogre, and the present is nothing but an ultra-thin threshold, a line beyond which there is nothing recognisable. The ringing of the phone has cloaked the continuity of time, and before the mirror where her reflection freezes, hands clutching the edges of the sink, Marianne turns to stone beneath the shock.’ The author also makes good use of building tension and creating uncertainty.
Mend the Living is certainly an intelligent and thoughtful novel. It is not an easy read, per se; one really has to concentrate upon each, almost invariably long sentence. I am one of the few not to adore it, but Mend the Living is certainly an admirable novel, with so many qualities to it. The medical elements have clearly been meticulously researched, and the use of each chapter following a different character creates further depth. Regardless, de Kerangal did not quite capture as much as I would have imagined.