Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Review: The Art of Hearing Heartbeats by Jan-Philipp Sendker

The heart and the mind do not see in equal measure. And sometimes those of us with reasonably decent eye sight miss the things that the heart sees. Jan-Philipp Sendker explores this idea and the enduring love that the heart can find when it is allowed to see unfettered by our other senses in his masterfully translated novel, The Art of Hearing Heartbeats.

Julia Win travels to her father's village in Thailand searching for him with the only clue she has to his disappearance: an unmailed love letter addressed to a woman named Mi Mi in Tin Win's village. Tin Win is a high powered, successful Wall Street lawyer when he disappears the day after Julia's law school graduation. Several years go by without any word of him but when Julia's mother sends her a box of her father's things, she finds the letter and sets out on her quest to discover what happened to her father.

When she arrives Kalaw and asks about her father, she finds a man named U Ba who says he has been waiting for her for years. Leery of trusting this stranger, he is the only person who seems to have any information for her at all so she keeps going back to see him, drawn, almost against her will, by the story he's telling her and which he claims her father told him. U Ba tells her of her father as a boy and a young man, sharing things she never knew before and she is uncertain as to whether this tale of her father, his childhood blindness, his meeting with the "crippled" Mi Mi, and their deep and abiding love is true or simply a fairy tale created for a tourist.

As Julia listens to the immensely touching story of the blind boy and the beautiful girl whose legs won't support her so she must scurry on all fours, she learns about her father's ability to hear the smallest of noises, to locate a person by their heartbeat, to see without seeing. She listens carefully to the special and unusual love story between Tin Win and Mi Mi for clues about the man who would become her father. And she also learns to listen to more than just the words of the tale, to listen with her own heart.

Sendker has woven both the western and the eastern sensibilities together in this narrative by using both American born Julia and her Burmese born father. He's captured Julia's discomfort with what she doesn't understand, the fantastical and mystical of her father's childhood. Sendker has offered up a lovely tribute to the way that true love recognizes its perfect match and endures despite all. The story of Tin Win and Mi Mi is delicately done and sweet but there's not much that explains Tin Win's decades in America or his feelings for his family there and that lack is inexplicable, or perhaps it just would have made the plot and the character of Tin Win too complicated but it feels missing. Julia's anger and hurt at her father's choice to disappear is understandable but over all she's not a particularly well-fleshed out character; she seems to be simply the reason for telling Tin Win's story. In another book this might be a problem but in this one, the rest of the story makes this small weakness immaterial. The end was a bit predictable but the journey to get there was so engaging that this too didn't matter. The idea of enduring love that survives no matter what curve balls life throws, spanning years, continents, and cultures is definitely appealing and readers will be hard pressed to put this one down until they've turned the last page.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book for review.

1 comment:

  1. Jan-Philipp Sendker’s follow up to his hit of ten years ago, The Art of Hearing Heartbeats, requires this approach from its readers. Indeed, if you come at it any other way the sense of loving possibility, optimism and joy that is its central message is likely to get clouded out.


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