Doctors and other medical experts hasten to prepare a young man’s organs for transplant and reckon with the need to be both compassionate and precise in a hurry.
Acclaimed in France upon its publication in 2014, de Kerangal’s fifth novel (and first to be translated into English) reads partly like reportage, detailing how various professionals snap to attention when human organs become available for donation. In this case, the story begins with Simon, a college student left brain dead and on life support when the van he was riding in with his surfing buddies crashed into a pole. A cast of characters enters in rapid succession, including Pierre, the head doctor of the ICU; Cordelia, a new nurse; Thomas, the staffer who assists Simon’s parents as they agonize over whether their son would want his organs donated; Marthe, the donor database manager charged with finding appropriate matches; and so on. But de Kerangal also means to explore how what looks like a fine-tuned clinical process from the outside in truth masks roiling emotional complexity. The most fully formed character in both cases is Thomas, who’s a classical music fan (fitting for his role as orchestrator) and who owns a goldfinch (“guarded like treasure”) that’s even more nakedly symbolic in a book about matters of the heart. In the first half of the book, de Kerangal’s balancing act is winning and effective, particularly as Simon’s parents must weigh reason and raw emotion while the clock is ticking. (And translator Taylor ably shifts between the book’s plainspoken and more lyrical registers.) But once the crucial decision is made midway through, the remainder of the book feels anticlimactic. Though there’s some drama in finding a recipient for the heart and performing the transplant, the chief drama is settled early.
A sophisticated medical drama whose pulse-pounding strength diminishes a touch too quickly.