Milkman by Anna Burns

As you may know, Milkman by the Northern Irish author Anna Burns was the winner of the Man Booker Prize 2018

Kwame Anthony Appiah, 2018 Chair of judges, had this to say:

‘None of us has ever read anything like this before. Anna Burns’ utterly distinctive voice challenges conventional thinking and form in surprising and immersive prose. It is a story of brutality, sexual encroachment and resistance, threaded with mordant humour. Set in a society divided against itself, Milkman explores the insidious forms oppression can take in everyday life.’

On finishing it I was left with a similar feeling as when I completed another Booker prize-winning novel, Marlon James, A Brief History of Seven Killings, that is, a feeling of exhaustion and of wonder, how could an author sustain this kind of writing, stay with this voice, day after day for as long as it took to write this? And what must it be like to live in or imagine living in a community as stifling as this. Just astounding.

I am in awe. It is no easy read, for it is written in a kind of double, triple speak, depicting a life and set of circumstances that is constantly in check, a circumventing of self. It describes from the inside how one young woman navigates daily life in a community that has drawn so many convoluted, coded lines of behaviour, that lives by so many unspoken, rigidly enforced violent rules, that has morphed into something so far from authenticity, that only the very ‘different’, appear able to, or indeed risk, living life true unto themselves, except those who left the country forever, their tale not told here, those that got away.

All this is told through the stream of consciousness narrative of an 18-year-old girl, as she observes her community and family insinuate a dramatic story onto her about a 40 something married man they call ‘Milkman’ (not to be confused with “the milkman”), a narrative trussed up by rumour, assumption, gossip, anything uttered or speculated on, except what the young woman has to say.

It doesn’t help that the one time she comes out of her silence and decides to share the boring truth, that there is and has never been anything going on between her and this man, she tells this to her pious mother, the one place she might find support.

During this ma looked at me without interruption but when I finished, and without hesitation she called me a liar, saying this deceit was nothing but a further mockery of herself. She spoke of other meetings then, between me and the milkman, besides the two to which I admitted. The community was keeping her abreast, she said, which meant she knew I met him for immoral trysts and assignations, knew too, of what we got up to in places too indecent even to give the ‘dot dot dot’ to. ‘You’re some sort of mob-woman,’ she said. ‘Out of the pale. Lost your intrinsic rights and wrongs. You make it hard, wee girl, to love you and if your poor father was alive, certainly he’d have something to say about this.’ she said. I doubted it.

‘Middle sister’ as she is referred to, thinks in a kind of coded language full of uttered phrases that substitute for a more succinct opinion, so that even the reader must enter into this “insinuating” talk to understand her thoughts, for nothing is stated plainly, just as nothing is observed or clarified as it really is. And we get good at it, at this revealing what is really being said, even beginning to see the humor in it, when none of it really is funny, there’s too much death, tragedy, sadness, ridiculousness. It’s not a life, it’s a trap.

It is a kind of prison that she manages temporarily to escape from or live with by going running with third brother-in-law, taking French lessons and ‘reading while walking’ literature from other, older centuries. But trying to remain separate and invisible to all the categories, has put her in the worst possible position, ‘beyond the pale’, her longest friend since primary school informs her.

‘Even you must appreciate, that as far as they’re concerned you’ve fallen into the difficult zone.’ She meant the ‘informer-type’ zone – not that I was an informer. It was that miscellany territory where, like the informer, you’re not accepted, you’re not admired, you’re not respected, not by one side, not by the other side, not by anybody, not even really by yourself. In my case though, seems I’d fallen into the difficult zone not only because I wouldn’t tell my life to others, or because of my numbance, or because of my suspiciousness of questions. What was also being held against me was that I wasn’t seen as the clean girlfriend, as in, he didn’t have other attachments. He did have other attachments. One was his wife. So I was the upstart, the little Frenchwoman, the arriviste, the hussy.

And then it is so much more as Dr Dawn Miranda Sherratt-Bado shares in her brilliant essay in the Dublin Review of Books Gender in Conflict where she describes Anna Burns writing as exploring “the impact in Northern Ireland of a level of violence that has become ordinary and has turned into the cultural norm” in particular that gendered violence is everywhere and unacknowledged.

Burns’ use of surrealism is a highly effective method whereby the author defamiliarises dominant (and often misrepresentative) narratives of the conflict and its legacy that circulate within the media and popular culture. The surrealist mode allows her to represent the psychological effects of trauma – registering what she calls “the feeling reality, rather than necessarily what happened”

“In an unstoppable torrent of words, she gives voice to the women who endured unspeakable violence during the Troubles, making a powerful and necessary feminist intervention into the literary legacy of the conflict.”  Dawn Miranda Sherratt-Bado

It’s an original, thought-provoking, cathartic read that stays with you long after reading, it puts the reader in total sympathy with the character of middle sister and creates a feeling of there being no way out, seeing her almost as the anti-hero for succeeding at least in losing herself through literature and a foreign language, gone momentarily from this nightmare, despite never being safe from the ever-present unwanted attention.

Highly recommended, if you want a more literary read and insight into the difficulty of living within a fraught political community.

The Author

Anna Burns was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, 1962. She is the author of two novels, No Bones and Little Constructions, and of the novella, Mostly Hero. In 2001 she won the Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize, and was shortlisted
for the 2002 Orange Prize for Fiction. She lives in East Sussex, England.

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Bitter Orange by Claire Fuller

This is Claire Fuller’s third book and is as engaging as her previous two, her unforgettable debut Our Endless Numbered Days which slowly unravels the story behind a 17-year-old girl who is back with her family after she went missing for nine years and last years Swimming Lessons, which also involved a mysterious disappearance, but was more of a portrait of a marriage.

Bitter Orange is less mysterious and though it is set in 1969, it has something of the feel of a timeless classic, with its setting in a dilapidated English mansion, with two characters employed by the new, absent owner to make a report on the inventory and architecture of the interior and garden, people interested in old things from the past, haunted by them in fact.

The book opens with Frances, unmarried, twenty years after certain events, as she is nearing the end of her life, recounting moments of that summer she spent at the country house to a vicar, the same vicar who was present that summer, witness to some but not all of what occurred. He seems eager to fill in the missing details, to elicit a confession of sorts, while there is still the opportunity.

Frances was there to document details about what was believed might be a Palladian bridge, however it was so overgrown, that she wasn’t convinced there was anything of interest beneath the plant life that was strangling the edifice.

Once settled into her attic room, France spies her housemates, Cara the carefree young woman, who it soon becomes clear is tormented by something and Peter the older lover of antiquities, a man who more than admires, wishes to possess all that he finds alluring.

Though Frances feels like an outsider around this couple, largely friendless having spent years looking after her elderly mother, she responds with great pleasure and anticipation to their invitations and soon the three of them abandon their responsibilities and spend their days like summer guests, plundering the champagne stocks they’ve discovered, picnicking  and enjoying the fruits and uncovered fortune of the environment they’ve occupied just like the armies that came before them.

The longer they spend together, the more it is obvious to Frances that their stories don’t correlate and that something is not right. Rather than confront them, she wants to continue being part of the trio they’ve become, a mistake that will cost her dearly.

In their unobserved curiosity, they cross forbidden boundaries, they participate in and witness activities that entangle their lives, pushing them over the edge from minor misdemeanors into irreconcilable behaviours that will change their lives forever.

For me, it didn’t have the same captivating atmosphere, characterisation and thought-provoking aspects present in Swimming Lessons, which is my favourite of the three books and was a five-star read for me last year, however it excels in demonstrating the murky depths of people, who are often not what they seem on the surface, and even when unravelled and revealed may not be telling things as they really are or were. Yes, watch out for the unreliable narrator,.

Fuller succeeds in penetrating the dark, murky aspects of character in a disturbing ending that surprises, given the elevated perception they have tried to portray themselves as, until that bewitching, bitter end.

N.B. Thank you to the publisher for sending me a copy.

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Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

A popular book in 2017, it won the Costa Book Award and has gone on to become a bestseller and will become a film starring Reese Witherspoon (who acquired the film rights), an incredible success for the debut novel of Gail Honeyman. To be honest, it hadn’t been on my radar, however when a friend lent me her copy, insisting I read it and a rainy day beckoned, I turned the page…

The book begins with an interesting quote from Olivia Laing’s book The Lonely City:

“…loneliness is hallmarked by an intense desire to bring the experience to a close; something which cannot be achieved by getting out more, but only be developing intimate connections. This is far easier said than done, especially for people whose loneliness arises from a state of loss or exile or prejudice, who have reason to fear or mistrust as well as long for the society of others.”

Eleanor Oliphant has been in the same office job in Glasgow, Scotland for almost eight years, she’s in her late twenties, intelligent, observant and diligent, she likes and needs routine and copes fine with her lack of social engagement, lack of friends, lack of family – with the exception of a weekly conversation with her mother on Wednesdays – and seems not to feel anything even when she overhears her colleagues speaking unkindly behind her back.

So used to her self imposed isolation and predictable life is she, that she seems shocked when a new employee Raymond from IT, whom she calls when her computer freezes one morning, initiates conversation with her outside the office, speaking to her as if she might be just like the others.

In this introduction to Eleanor, we aren’t sure of her, though her obvious intelligence and comfort in routine, he slight air of superiority despite the comments of her colleagues, suggest some kind of cognitive difference and her lack of a filter or self-censoring ability make her abject honesty a cause of surprise to some. Her habit of consuming vast amounts of vodka at home alone at the weekend, suggest something more dire lurks in her past.

Over the course of the novel, more of her early life is revealed and we learn that she has been through some kind of childhood trauma, which might explain some of her behaviours. This really sets up what for me was the main question, was this a case of nature, nurture (lack of) or trauma or a combination of them all. Honeyman leaves it to the reader to decide, but regardless of what influences made Eleanor the way she is, she is ripe for transformation. And she seems to have realised it herself, albeit, lead by a new obsession.

For, at the same time, and from the opening pages, she believes she may have met the perfect man, or is about to meet him, she obsesses about this man and builds him into her image of perfection, as had been defined by her absent mother, and prepares to improve herself physically in preparation of meeting him.

Meanwhile, through Raymond, her actual social connections begin to widen and they awaken something familiar in her, feelings that go with being invited to be part of a community, small acts of kindness, of inclusiveness, and Raymond helps her navigate these interactions, as might a friend.

It is a well written, engaging and thought provoking read, partly because of what is not known and slowly revealed, but the dialogue gives the story pace and there are plenty of new activities and social interactions Eleanor participates in, providing the space for her to grow and develop within.

“I wondered how it would feel to perform such simple deeds for other people. I couldn’t remember. I had done such things in the past, tried to be kind, tried to take care, I knew I had, but that was before. I tried, and I had failed, and all was lost to me afterwards. I had no one to blame but myself.”

I did find the character of Eleanor a little difficult to believe in, the long years of solitude followed by a relatively sudden transformation seem to occur too easily and quickly, however if I were to suspend judgement on the authenticity of the character and the speed of her life change, which wasn’t hard to do, then it becomes a kind of coming-of-age novel about a young woman overcoming a traumatic past and demonstrates (a little too conveniently) the healing that can come from genuine friendship and being part of a family and community and a functional workplace (if there is such a thing).

The introduction of a therapist also allows for the conversations that explore the difference between the fulfillment of physical needs and emotional needs, neatly tying things up and rounding off Eleanor’s late education and self development.

And while it’s not exactly a romance, there are elements of the ambiguity of her friendship with Raymond that certainly are likely to make this a popular film.

An entertaining, light read, that leaves you with more than a few questions.

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Little by Edward Carey

I read a sample of the first few pages of Little by Edward Carey (see the link below) and immediately wanted to read more.

Gallic Books usually translate and publish French novels under their Gallic imprint, however I could see exactly why this historical novel, written by the English novelist and playwright Edward Carey, set in the late 1700’s France, would be a worthy addition to their collection and so I requested a copy which to my delight was sent to me soon after. Even before reading it, I was recommending it to friends, some of whom have finished it, so it rose to the top of the pile and Voila, here are my thoughts on it!

It’s a wonderful read, following the extraordinary life of Anne Marie Grosholtz, born in 1761 in a small country village in Switzerland, who must move to the city of Berne with her fragile, easily frightened, recently widowed mother, to work for a young, reclusive, eccentric Doctor Curtius, a home-based medic obsessed with anatomy and the physiology of the body, who creates replica body parts copying those that the hospital delivers him, reproducing them in wax.

The mother too faint-hearted to cope with the thought of having to assist him, it is left to six-year-old Marie, to be the strong one, to learn the required skills so she becomes his servant, and his first model, for a complete head, a plaster mould filled with wax. When the wax heads are sought out by men who desire to see themselves on display, the hospital turns against him and they flee to Paris, where a journalist who had once visited them befriends them and finds lodgings with an overbearing tailor’s widow and her meek son Edmond.

At first their work has no connection, but the widow is an astute businesswoman and soon takes control of the Doctor’s affairs moving them to larger premises on a main boulevard where their business will become a leading attraction in Paris. They recreate both the noble and the demons of the city, the murderers, who they believe by putting on show might teach people what to avoid.

Marie is not liked by the widow and is banned from the workshop as the widow inserts herself into the life and work of the Doctor, but secretly she has been making a few mini wax models of her own and thus her fate will change once again, when the reigning King Louis XVI’s sister Elisabeth comes knocking unannounced and it is Marie who answers the door.

She will spend eleven years in the palace of Versailles as tutor (Maitresse de Cire) to her princess friend, until her confidence and boredom combine to get her in trouble and she is banished, back to the widow and her master. This transgression may well have saved her life, given what was to come with French royalty.

The novel tracks her life and beside it the growing unrest in Paris, as the people rebel against those who ‘have’, against those who ‘rule’, and a frenzy of imprisonments and executions pervade the city, where no one is safe from denunciation and possible death. These stories and the historical references bring the novel alive, in animated prose that explores the noble alongside the grim and ghoulish, for the public of the time desired to see and know it all.

Marie is a survivor, and through all kinds of circumstances, she not only survives, she adds to her skills and is destined to thrive, despite the inordinate amount of suffering and tragedy she witnesses and bears.

Never entirely safe, being a foreigner in a land where favour swings swiftly and justice had a penchant for heads, she eventually leaves Paris and an ill-chosen husband Tussaud, taking one of her sons, to live out her thriving middle and old age in London, creating there, what was no longer sustainable in Paris, a wax museum of the rich, famous and infamous. At the age of 81, eight years before her death, she created her own wax self-portrait, which continues to reside in the museum today.

Edward Carey was terrified by her wax museum as a child, worked there as an adult, and has now written a novel about Tussaud, who survived the bloody French Revolution and built her own myth in London. The Guardian

With so many changes occurring in their lives, and so many characters of varying class and esteem entering their premise and the inevitable difficulties of being the unwanted additional child in an already complex household, it’s no wonder the chapters and years fly by, full of intriguing accounts of the lives of all those who had cause to come within Marie’s purview.

A brilliant, absorbing read of an incredibly resilient child, who becomes a skillful, industrious, entrepreneurial woman, with the addition of many pencil drawings throughout, just as we imagine she might have done them. Highly recommended for those who enjoy excellent historical fiction about women raising themselves up despite immense challenges in their social status and background.

‘In an age in which historical female figures have gained more posthumous recognition, Little is a perfectly weaved story of a woman who has captured the imagination of many, but has been written about by few. From Marie’s perspective, the difficulties 18th Century women faced in order to achieve recognition or success are illuminated for the modern reader.’ — Culture Trip

Read a Sample from Little

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Hanna’s Daughters by Marianne Fredriksson tr. Joan Tate #WITMonth

In its original language the title was Anna, Hannah och Johanna. The title in English is misleading, as I read Hanna’s story and she continued to have one boy after the other, I wondered when she was going to have time to have those daughters, until I realised it was a generational reference.

Hanna has one daughter, Johanna, a name that carries its own story and past, before she is even born, one of the reasons she is closer to her father in her early years. Johanna would also have one daughter Anna, it is she who begins to narrate this story, she visits her mother in hospital, desperate to get answers to questions she has left it too late to ask.

She had lost her memory four years ago, then only a few months later her words had disappeared. She could see and hear, but could name neither objects nor people, so they lost all meaning.

Anna knows she is being demanding like a child, willing her mother to understand and respond, reprimanded by the care staff for upsetting her, for although she can’t respond, she remains vulnerable to the joys and anxieties of those around her and powerless to prevent the dreams that carry her each night back to the world of her childhood, that place her daughter is now desperately trying to access.

Anna finds an old photograph of her grandmother Hanna and recognises similarities she’s not been aware of, she remembers her briefly and recalls asking her mother:

‘Why isn’t she a proper Gran? Whose lap you can sit on and who tells stories?
And her mother’s voice: ‘She’s old and tired, Anna. She’s had enough of children. And there was never any time for stories in her life?’

The discovery of the photo and the recognition it awakens in Anna gets her thinking about the lives of all the women in her family, that by tracing the past and understanding the circumstances and decisions they had to make, she might better be able to navigate her own life, rather than blaming the relationship she is in for her misery.

The narrative then shifts back to Hanna’s childhood, born in 1871, she was the eldest of a second group of children born, the first four died in the famine of the 1860’s.

What the mother learned from the previous deaths was never to get fond of the new child. And to fear dirt and bad air.

The first half of the book is dedicated to Hanna and her life and this is where the novel is at its best, immersed in the struggle of Hanna’s early years, its tragic turning point and the situation she is forced to accept as a result. Circumstances that will become buried deep, that nevertheless leave their impression on how she is in the world and impact those daughters indirectly.

It is also in this section we learn how difficult life was for so many families on the border region between Norway and Sweden and the political discontent that existed at the time. People who had lived together peacefully, intermarried and seemed to be as one, as republican issues arose, discrimination added another layer to the challenges in their lives and became another reason for people to move on.

The mid-section comes back to reveal more of her grand-daughter Anna’s adult life, charmed by a man with womanizing tendencies, but of a generation that refuses to accept an unbearable situation, one where women are able to be financially independent and greater decision makers, though not necessarily fulfilled or happy with their lives.

Naturally I thought it was love driving me into Donald’s arms. In my generation, we were obsessed with a longing for a grand passion. Hanna, you would’ve understood nothing whatsoever about love of that kind. In your day, love hadn’t penetrated from the upper classes to the depths of peasantry.

Finally we learn more about Johanna’s life with her husband Arne, the good fortune that eventually came into her life, the trials that would follow, of a different nature than her mother’s, though not so far from her grandmother’s.

The second half of the book was less memorable, possibly because Hanna’s story created such a strong sense of place and life in that era was full of dramatic events which underpinned the development of all the characters around her. When the family moves to Gothenburg, to the city and its ways, when the automobile arrives and travels shortens distances, when life became modern, it tended to become more uniform, less distinct.

Marianne Fredriksson

Marianne Fredriksson in the opening pages of the novel reflects on something she learned at school, when Bible studies were still part of the curriculum, that the sins of the fathers are inflicted on children into the third and fourth generations. She felt that was terribly unjust, primitive and ridiculous, growing up, the first generation to be raised to be ‘independent’, those who were to take destiny into their own hands.

Then as knowledge developed and understanding of the importance of our social and psychological inheritance grew, those words began to acquire new meaning, and though there were none that spoke about the actions of mothers, here she found it to have more meaning.

We inherit patterns, behaviour and ways of reacting to a much greater extent than we like to admit. It has not been easy to adapt to; so much has been ‘forgotten’, disappearing into the subconscious when grandparents left farms and countryside where the family had lived for generations.

She goes on to say that ancient patterns are passed on from mothers to daughters, who have daughters… and that perhaps here too we might find some

explanation for why women have found it so difficult to stick up for themselves and make use of the rights an equal society has to offer.

It’s a book that considers the forces that influence us and asks what might have shaped us more, our personal and/or family history or the generation to which we belong. It gives us a little insight into the way of life and historical challenges of another part of the world.

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Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck tr. Susan Bernofsky #WITMonth

I’ve attempted to read Visitation about four times and never succeeded in getting past the first few chapters, but this year I persevered as I felt I hadn’t given it a fair chance.

Now that I’ve finished it, I realise I held unrealistic expectations when I first came across it. I bought my hardcover version in Daunt Books in Marylebone on a visit to London in 2010, I was aware of it after having read a review in the Guardian, this was in the early days when I was newly discovering works by writers in translation.

Jenny Erpenbeck was being hailed as “the rising star of the German literary scene” and her work described as “one of the most striking and original new voices in German writing.” I wanted to discover what that meant, to read it and feel it. Naive. I wasn’t yet able to discern in the little explored world of translations, which voices I would lean towards and appreciate, or to value my reading perceptions.

I began this book a few times and the striking and original wasn’t happening. I shouldn’t have read those blurbs, I should have read it without any expectation and then moved on to her next books, which have gone on to develop a wider audience, won prizes and further established her as that which that was predicted.

Visitation is a veiled narrative that shows a little of the lives of a few people who lived alongside a lake that was formed about thirteen thousand years, whose origins might be traced back to a glacier from twenty-four thousand years ago. Beginning the book with this geological origin reminds us of our insignificance and the inevitability of change and transformation.

“As the day is long and the world is old, many
people can stand in the same place, one after the other.”
– Marie in Woyzeck, by George Buchner

The first chapter is entitled ‘The Wealthy Farmer and his Four Daughters’ and tells of the local mayor, who comes from a long line of men, all who have been Mayor of the village, the chapter tells of many traditions, rituals and superstitions, of what is meant to be, to happen, to the point of extreme ridiculousness, as if thousands of years of rituals have piled up on top of one another, awaiting the seismic event that will topple them all. Because he has only procured girls, the inevitable is indeed waiting to happen, for there will be no new Mayor from his family and change is coming to Brandenburg. History as we know is about to impact this family and others, people are going to have to leave and strangers are going to arrive.

When they returned to Germany, it was a long time she and her husband could bring themselves to shake hands with people they didn’t know. They had felt a virtually physical revulsion when faced with all these people who had willingly remained behind.

In between the chapters with titles encompassing their time there, like ‘The Architect’, the Architect’s Wife’, ‘the Red Army Officer’, ‘the Subtenants’, ‘the Girl’, ‘the Writer’, ‘the Visitor’, ‘the Childhood Friend’, are the chapters of ‘The Gardener’, the one closest to nature, the one consistent thread that exists throughout all the others, as the others succumb to the effects of the era in history they embrace – pre-war(s) to post war Germany, is the man with no name, who looks after everything, but who is a cycle of nature himself, so that by the end, as his (in)ability changes, so too do others that come in have to either take up his responsibilities or allow things to fall into neglect.

Laced with melancholy, it offers snippets of lives of those who dwell(ed) near this lake, wood, village – the compromises, the passing of seasons, the building, destroying of things, relationships – why strangers are both spurned and revered and always The Gardener, the one who tends, who observes, who slowly wilts, forcing others to adapt.

While I appreciate what it attempts to do, I didn’t find the novel engaging, that melancholy combined with the veiled effect, of keeping the reader at a distance from the characters, of only seeing so much, instilled in it for me, a kind a quiet dread, a feeling drained of hope, as if there was no escape from a dire inevitability, no matter what it was. The psyche of the era it was set in perhaps; if so, it succeeds in creating an atmosphere of a country, its people and the spectre of its past.

 

Mend the Living by Maylis de Kerangal #WITMonth

Although I’ve read reviews and seen this book appear often over the last year, and knew I really wanted to read it, I couldn’t remember what is was about or why.

It was down to a consistent feeling and feedback from readers whose views I respect, their brief tweets of encouragement igniting the flame of motivation that made me choose this as the first #WIT (Women in Translation) novel I’d read in August 2018. Yes, it is WIT Month again, now in its 5th year!

So how to describe this remarkable novel?

There’s a clue in the two versions of the English translations, (the American and British English versions have different titles and different translators). The novel was originally written in French and ironically one of the characters, a 50-year-old woman awaiting a heart transplant in a Parisian hospital, is also a translator.

The American translation (by Sam Taylor) is entitled The Heart and it is indeed a story that follows the heart of a 19-year-old youth from the moment his alarm clock rings at 5.50 a.m one morning, an hour he rarely awakes, as he sets off with two friends on a surfing mission during a rare mid-winter half-tide; over the next 24 hours until his body is meticulously prepared to be laid to rest.

He lets out a whoop as he takes his first ride, and for a period of time he touches a state of grace – its horizontal vertigo, he’s neck and neck with the world, and as though issued from it, taken into its flow – space swallows him, crushes him as it liberates him, saturates his muscular fibres, his bronchial tubes, oxygenates his blood; the wave unfolds on a blurred timeline, slow or fast it’s impossible to tell, it suspends each second one by one until it finishes pulverised, an organic, senseless mess and it’s incredible but after having been battered by pebbles in the froth at the end, Simon Limbeau turns to go straight back out again.

The British translation (by Jessica Moore) is entitled Mend the Living, broader in scope, it references the many who lie with compromised organs, who dwell in a twilight zone of half-lived lives, waiting to see if their match will come up, knowing when it does, it will likely be a sudden opportunity, to receive a healthy heart, liver, or kidney from a donor, taken violently from life.

It could also refer to those who facilitate the complex conversations and interventions, those with empathy and sensitivity who broach the subject to parents not yet able to comprehend, let alone accept what is passing – to those with proficiency, who possess a singular ambition to attain perfection in their chosen field, harvesting and transplanting organs.

Maylis de Kerangal writes snapshots of scenes that pass on this one day, entering briefly into the personal lives of those who have some kind of involvement in the event and everything that transpires connected to it, in the day that follows.

It’s like the writer wields a camera, zooming in on the context of the life of each person; the parents, separated, who will be brought together, the girlfriend confused by a long silence, the nurse waiting for a text message from last nights tryst, the female intern following in the family tradition, the Doctor who she will shadow removing thoughts of the violent passion of the woman he abandoned when his pager went off, and the one who bookends the process who listens to the questions and requests, who respects the concerns of the living and the dead, the one who sings and is heard.

Within the hospital, the I.C.U. is a separate space that takes in tangential lives, opaque comas, deaths foretold – it houses those bodies situated exactly at the point between life and death. A domain of hallways and rooms where suspense holds sway.

The translator Jessica Moore refers to her task in translating the authors work, as ‘grappling with Maylis’s labyrinthe phrases’, which can feel like what it must be like to be an amateur surfer facing the wave, trying and trying again, to find the one that fits, the wave and the rider, the words and the translator. She gives up trying to turn what the author meant into suitable phrases and leaves interpretation to the future, potential reader, us.

It is an extraordinary novel in its intricate penetration and portrayal of medical procedure, it’s obsession with language, with extending its own vocabulary, its length of phrase, as if we are riding a wave of words, of long sentences strung out across a shoreline, that end with a dumping in the shallows.

In the process of writing the book, the author’s own father had a heart attack, which put the writing on hold and sent her thinking to even greater depths:

“A few months later I was in Marseille and I wanted to understand what is a heart. I began to think about its double nature: on the one hand you have an organ in your body and on the other you have a symbol of love. From that time I started to pursue the image of a heart crossing the night from one body to another. It is a simple narrative structure but it’s open to a lot of things. I had the intuition that this book could give form to my intimate experience of death.”

This is one of those novels that unleashes the mind and sends it off in all kinds of directions, thinking about the impact events have on so many lives, the different callings people have, the incredible developments in medical science, how little we really know and yet how some do seem to know intuitively and can act in ways that restores our faith in humanity.

A deserving winner of the Wellcome Book Prize in 2017, a prize that rewards books that illuminate the human experience through its interaction with health, medicine and illness, literature engaging with science and medical themes, the book has also been made into a successful film and two stage productions.

Highly Recommended.

Interview with Maylis de KerangalWhat is a Heart? by Claire Armistead