Monday, July 2, 2012

REVIEW: The Art of Hearing Heartbeats, by Jan-Philipp Sendker

The Art of Hearing Heartbeats, by Jan-Philipp Sendker. Published 2012 by Other Press. Literary Fiction. Translated from the German by Kevin Wiliarty.

As a bookseller, my job is to sell books to customers, but almost just as often they sell books to me. I'll start to talk to a customer about a book he or she is looking at, and before I know it I'm hearing all about how that book is a favorite of hers or his, and how I should read it right away. Such was the case with Jan-Philipp Sendker's lovely The Art of Hearing Heartbeats; the customer told me it was the perfect light love story, just delightful. Of course it didn't hurt that the customer in this case was the woman who heads the house that published it, so of course I was going to take her advice and get the book!

And right she was. The Art of Hearing Heartbeats marks German author Jan-Philipp Sendker's English-language debut, and it is a charmer. It's the story of a young woman named Julia whose enigmatic Burmese father has disappeared, and she's taken off to Burma to find him with no more than a mysterious love letter to a woman named Mi Mi for guidance. What she learns surprises her, angers her, moves her and finally changes her.

Julia's father, born Tin Win and orphaned young, never wanted to talk about the first twenty years of his life. His American wife and daughter knew an intensely private man who loved them but kept them at a distance; when he left them he destroyed what remained of their family, and Julia is filled with rancor. She wants to confront him, ask him why and get an answer. She finds out that his life was something she never imagined, that Mi Mi was also something different from the temptress she and her mother made her out to be, and that his fate is almost enough to break her heart.

More than that I don't want to say because the pleasure of the book is letting these lives unfold on the page. I sort of wish Sendker had told Tin Win's story without Julia; she didn't add much and I wish I could tell writers that it's okay to tell a story like this one without some modern American person as a framing device. Readers can handle people from the past or people from other cultures speaking for themselves, and those modern characters always seem to come loaded with modern baggage, pop psychology rants and other nonsense that distracts from the main thrust of the story.

Besides that I really enjoyed the tenderness and the sweet love story that develops, as well as its tear-inducing ending. The writing is fluid and the plot moves along smoothly. It's definitely a literary hammock book, perfect armchair travel for a sunny summer day. I think lots of readers would enjoy this very enjoyable book.

Rating: BEACH

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.