We’ve left the re-education camps of China far behind us, arriving in France for the first time on our Man Booker International Prize journey. However, if you were expecting some respite after the rigours of the last stage, I’m afraid you’re sadly mistaken – there’s been a family tragedy, and we’re merely here to see how everyone manages to pick up the pieces…
Mend the Living by Maylis de Kerangal –
Review copy courtesy of MacLehose Press, translated by Jessica Moore
What’s it all about?
Somewhere in north-west France, an alarm clock goes off at 5.50 a.m., waking nineteen-year-old Simon Limbeau from his slumber. He quickly gets ready and sets off in a van with two friends for a morning surfing session in the cold North-Atlantic sea. Driving back, there is an accident, the van crashing into a pole, and while two of the boys escape with minor injuries, Simon (the only one without a seat-belt) is not so lucky, crashing head-first into the windscreen.
Despite the swift transit to hospital, it is clear that it is too late, the young man’s brain damaged beyond repair, yet what could be the end of the story is only the beginning. While Simon’s brain is dead, his heart is still pumping, meaning that for the doctors at the hospital the race is on. Over the course of twenty-four hours, an ever-increasing circle of protagonists will be drawn into Simon’s presence in an attempt to salvage something positive from the tragedy…
Mend the Living, then, is an attempt to describe what happens when disaster strikes but time is short, a complex examination of a host of differing priorities. The novel centres, almost literally, around Simon’s heart, with de Kerangal exploring the ethical and logistical issues of removing organs from a person who only a few decades ago would still legally have been alive. It is this change in thinking, the switch in priorities from the heart to the brain, which allows the doctors to proclaim Simon’s death, setting in motion a rigorous, yet swift, procedure to use his body to, well, mend the living.
With only hours to complete the removal and transplant of the organs, the doctors need to act quickly. However, there’s also the small matter of the grief of the parents to consider, and Pierre Revol, the doctor in charge of the casualty department, struggles with the impossibility of the task:
Revol ignores the beep beep at his belt, opens his hand, studies the orangey paperweight growing warm against his palm. He’s sucked dry. He just told this man and this woman that their son is dead, didn’t clear his throat, didn’t lower his voice, said the words, the word “deceased”, and, worse still, the word “dead”, these words that freeze a bodily state. But Simon Limbeau’s body is not frozen, that is exactly the problem, and his aspect contravenes the usual idea of a corpse; it is, after all, warm, flushed, and it moves – rather than being cold, blue and immobile.
p.78 (MacLehose Press, 2016)
It is now, with the body still warm, still breathing, with the parents still numb, attempting to come to terms with the awful truth, that Revol and his colleagues have to ask questions they wish they could simply leave to someone else: ‘What would Simon want to happen?’ – ‘Can we use his organs to donate to someone else?’…
De Kerangal doesn’t make this easy on the parents or the medical staff (or, for that matter, on the reader), and part of the strength of Mend the Living is the way that in the midst of a frenetic day with not a second to waste, the writer still manages to add a human element to all involved. Simon’s mother, Marianne, is depicted in great detail, a woman falling apart, her face reflecting her torment; there’s also her estranged husband Sean, a Maori who feels guilt over passing his love of surfing to his son. They must deal with Thomas Remige, the music-loving organ donation specialist, whose feel for the intricacies of the situation immediately become clear. Even a relatively minor character like Cordelia Owl, one of the emergency nurses, is fleshed out, the reader privy to her sense of exhaustion and her growing frustration as she waits for a phone call from the man she slept with the night before…
It might sound akin to a cross between 24 and ER (and that certainly wouldn’t be the worst of blurbs…), but Mend the Living owes much of its success to the writing. The overview of the wide range of characters is due in part to the narratorial view adopted, with an omniscient writer filling us in on events as they happen, occasionally commenting drily:
…and it would be wise not to pester her with trivialities, it would be wise to remain silent and invisible while she asks Thomas to fill her in on the situation… (p.137)
This semi-detached air, with the occasional intrusion by the writer, focuses the reader’s attention, concentrating the events of the story, even when it momentarily wanders off on a slight tangent.
I suspect, though, that most readers of Mend the Living would immediately be struck by the language itself. For a good while, I was a little unsure whether I actually liked the style, a rolling, urgent mess of words, with several distinctive features – unusual use of present tense, missing subjects, absent articles – , a clinical, factual account in places, brutal at times. There is a reason for this, though, a reflection of life at the hospital:
…he uses this language they share, language that banishes the verbose as a waste of time, exiles eloquence and the seduction of words, overdoes nouns, codes and acronyms, language in which to speak signifies above all to describe – in other words, inform a team, gather up all the evidence in order to allow a diagnosis to be made, tests to be ordered, to allow people to treat and to save: power of the succinct. (p.28)
Which is not to say that it’s always perfect. The vocabulary can be a little overblown at times (pendulate, grandiloquent, digitigrade, zygomatics), and I was surprised that in a translation for a British press there were so many jarring Americanisms: bleachers, dove instead of dived, trunk instead of boot, quarterback’s arm (I have no idea what the writer means by that…). I’d be amazed if a British translator writing for an American press managed to get that many British English expressions past the editor. On the whole, though, the writing is excellent, and that means high praise is due to Jessica Moore for capturing de Kerangal’s style and tone🙂
In the end, Mend the Living is a novel which shows how life, and our definition of it, has changed, and how death might be the final barrier for some, but the start of a new life for others. As the clock ticks down towards the start of a new day, Simon’s story sadly comes to an end, and his family is forced to come to terms with a very different life. However, for several other people, this truly is a new dawn – from the young man’s tragedy, the doctors have managed to harvest seeds of hope. Let’s hope they blossom in their new home…
Does it deserve to make the shortlist?
Absolutely. I wasn’t entirely convinced early on, but the story eventually grabbed me, and I read the second half pretty much straight through. There’s a lot of ambition here, both in terms of story and writing, meaning this one is definitely in my top six.
Will it make the shortlist?
Well, it should, but…
My decisions here are always based on the premise that there’s a little bit of politics behind the decisions the judges make (controversial, I know), and I just have one comment to make. Two books by French writers, both women, both from the same publisher – is there room for both on the shortlist, or will the judges decide that one is enough and give someone else a chance?
After several intercontinental trips recently, I thought it might be a nice idea to relax a little this time, taking a short train trip to our next destination. Another French story, another family drama, yet this time it’s the mother who’s missing – but, as you’ll see, she’s certainly not dead…