More than 3,000 people in the United Stages are waiting for heart transplants, placed by fate in the terrible position of needing someone else to die so that they may live. A writer of fiction might be tempted to explore this unique psychological quandary, but when French novelist Maylis de Kerangal decided to write about heart transplantion, she found herself more interested in the donor than the recipient.
Speaking by phone from New York where she is on tour after the American release of her novel “The Heart,” a bestseller in France, de Kerangal said: “People love to see people repaired, the power of medicine, how science can beat death. They never want to see that behind someone who is repaired, someone died. This tragedy is an angle mort [a “dead angle” or blind spot]. I wanted to look in the dead angle of heart transplants.”
“The Heart” focuses mainly on Simon Limbres, the 20-year-old donor, and his family. The plot spans a mere 24 hours: Simon goes surfing early one morning with two friends; the trio are in a car accident; informed that he is brain dead, Simon’s devastated parents give permission for his organs to be harvested. Almost as an epilogue, the reader learns that a middle-aged woman named Claire, who suffers from myocarditis, will receive Simon’s heart.
De Kerangal knew little about transplantion when she started writing “The Heart.” The death from a cardiac arrest of someone she loved inspired her to write about the heart. Transplantation seemed a rich literary subject and also a means to assuage her grief. “This trajectory I wanted to experience: the migration of a heart from one body to another. I wanted to find a form to give to my pain inside language,” she said.
De Kerangal wrote “The Heart” in just a year, working very intensely. She spoke to several physicians, scientists, and other experts and observed heart transplant surgery at a hospital in Paris, where she lives. She noted that transplant surgery is especially common there because, unlike in the United States, the default status regarding organ donation in France is “donor” (people can elect to carry “non-donor” cards).
The doctors who helped de Kerangal with her research have told her they’re impressed with the medical accuracy of the book. More important, though, they feel she’s taught them something about the experience of organ donors’ families. She’s been asked to speak at conferences and at medical schools about the wrenching scene in “The Heart” where a doctor asks Simon’s parents for permission to retrieve his organs.
“I have no medical background,” de Kerangal admitted. She’s never written a novel about medicine before and has no plans to do so again. Still, she said, she’s delighted that through her new novel “the world of medicine and the world of literature are connected.”