Wellcome Book Prize 2017: Mend the Living by Maylis de Kerangal
The Wellcome Book Prize celebrates works of fiction and non-fiction that touch on the subject of medicine, health and illness. One of the two novels in this year's shortlist is Mend the Living by Maylis de Kerangal, beautifully translated from the French by Jessica Moore.
Mend the Living is a cinematic journey over the course of 24 hours, from fatal accident through to life-saving heart transplant. Simon Limbeau is a surfer, rippling with energy, warmth and youthful vitality. After an early morning session with friends, a road accident leaves him brain-dead, but with his strong heart still beating he is set on course to become an organ donor.
The narrative, which opens with a huge sentence of several hundred words, is unrelenting, at once involved and detached from the action, observing the events unfolding as though from above, the dialogue integrated in the flow, mimicking the central event: surgeon looking down upon patient and patient's heart.
Simon as a character is ultimately insignificant in the novel, which focuses instead on the lives of the people who are involved in the medical process as he inhabits this particular world between life and death: his distraught mother, the doctor, the organ donor specialist, the nurse. Simon and his heart come to represent opportunity, ambition, medical progress. De Kerangal is thorough, detailed, pragmatic in her descriptions of the unfolding process, but the novel still conveys a very human experience, a story of fragility, grief, life and death.