Mend the Living – Maylis de Kerangal

I finished reading Mend the Living a few weeks ago, but it’s taken me a while to process it all and come back to writing about it. I have mixed feelings about the novel – on the one hand, the book deals very well with huge, complex topics, but on the other, I found the writing style to be over the top and slightly forced. I’ll give it a 7.5/10.

The premise of the novel is this; Simon, a teenage surfer, becomes brain dead after a tragic car crash and his parents are forced to make the acutely difficult decision of whether or not to donate his organs. The novel takes us to the spot between life and death, and explores what those concepts really mean to us, now, in modern society. Simon, while brain dead and therefore medically dead, appears alive to his parents – his skin is warm and he is visibly breathing. So the book asks, what does it mean to be dead? What does it mean to be alive? It explores our understanding of death and life, noting that it is not always as clear cut as we might like to think.

The reader is given various points of view from different actors within the organ donation world – the parents, who must make a relatively quick decision whilst reeling from the news of their son’s death, the doctor who receives Simon first and who is the first point of call for the parents, the head of the organ donation unit who must convince the parents to give up their son’s organs, the prestigious harvesting surgeon who wants to refine and demonstrate his extraordinary skills, the sick women who has been waiting for a heart for months and might now receive one, and the head of the National Organ Allocation, who wants to distribute the organs as quickly and efficiently as possible. Their stories are nuanced and complex, and portray incredibly well the different emotions and investments in organ donation and in the death of a young man.

For me, the most intriguing story was that of the head of the hospital’s organ donation unit, Thomas. His duty to convince the newly bereaved parents to give up their son’s organs, while he is brain dead but still warm, breathing and therefore ‘alive’, is an incredibly difficult one. He is restrained by time – the quicker the donation, the better – but also by respect for the parents and their son. To me, his character most inhabits and navigates that space the novel explores, that space between life and death.

Overall, I would recommend the novel. My one criticism is that the writing style, almost stream-of-consciousness-like, feels forced and for me, didn’t quite give the sense of emergency that I think the author was looking for. However, the themes dealt with are not often discussed within our society but are incredibly important, and the story itself is deeply moving.

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