The Art of Hearing Heartbeats – Jan-Philipp Sendker

Review (Amazon):  A poignant and inspirational love story set in Burma, The Art of Hearing Heartbeats spans the decades between the 1950s and the present.  When a successful New York lawyer suddenly disappears without a trace, neither his wife nor his daughter Julia has any idea where he might be…until they find a love letter he wrote many years ago, to a Burmese woman they have never heard of. Intent on solving the mystery and coming to terms with her father’s past, Julia decides to travel to the village where the woman lived. There she uncovers a tale of unimaginable hardship, resilience, and passion that will reaffirm the reader’s belief in the power of love to move mountains.

My Review (Spoilers!): This review has some big spoilers at the end, so if you do want to read the book, you might refrain from reading my review!!! Don’t say I didn’t warn you!

Executive Summary: Odd

So this was our romance/love story for this year’s book club, and I really thought it had a lot of potential. It’s a lot different than the standard story from this genre, and it had an unfamiliar setting. However, at the end of the book, I was left scratching my head about things.

Julia, a young professional lawyer, decides to take a sabbatical from her job to figure out what happened to her father. She grew up in New York City like her mother, but her father grew up in Burma. One day he up and left his family, his trail running cold in Bangkok. Her mother didn’t know anything of her father’s childhood, and Julia decides to see what she can find out. Her father was a lawyer, and by the time he disappeared, he and Julia’s mother did not get along well.

Over the next four years, nothing turns up of her father. Her mother one day sends a package of some remaining items of her father’s. Julia looks through them, and finds an envelope addressed to Mi Mi, in Kalaw, Burma from 1955. It’s a love letter, and the first key to the puzzle. When she tells her mother she is leaving, her mother is annoyed. She doesn’t understand what Julia expects to find, and she is bitter. She tells Julia that her father never wanted to marry her, and that he left her (and them) long before he physically did. Julia decided to go anyway.

When Julia gets to Kalaw (a very long and difficult journey), she meets an old man named U Ba at the tea house. He claims to know her father and begins to tell Julia his tale.

Tin Win (Julia’s father) was born to very superstitious parents. His mother had watched her brother die as a child and went to the astrologer regularly to seek guidance. Tin Win was born on a very superstitious day. Following his birth, bad things began to happen, and eventually, his parents sought the astrologer. The astrologer told them that the child will bring great sorrow to his parents. Not long after, Tin Win’s father died in a work accident, and his mother, knowing that she could not handle any more sorrow, left the boy. Eventually a neighbor, Su Kyi, comes to rescue him and moves into his house to look after him. He’s a strange boy, not having any friends, but spending most of his time playing outside. But over time, his eyesight begins to deteriorate.

Su Kyi takes him to the monks as she has a good friendship with the head monk, U May. She asks him what to do, and he suggests that Tin Win stay for a few weeks with the monks. During that time, he learns to deal with his blindness, letting his other senses develop so that he can manage in the world. He’s a good student but has no friends. He begins to develop extraordinary hearing, but he cannot identify the sounds he hears. He asks Su Kyi to investigate, but she can never get him the info he wants. And then one day at the monastery, he hears something new–a heart beat. He goes to identify the source, and he finds a girl. He speaks to her briefly, and then her mother calls her away. Her name is Mi Mi.

Eventually he finds her again at the town market, and he asks her to help him identify a sound. She agrees but she needs his help to put her on his back to investigate that the sound he is hearing is of an unhatched chick still in its shell. Mi Mi needs help because she cannot stand, nor walk, on her own due to a birth defect. Tin Win continues to meet her every market day, and they develop a symbiotic relationship–he is her legs, and she is his eyes. Over the years, it developed into the most intense love that Mi Mi’s parents and Su Kyi could even imagine.

But one day, Tin Win’s uncle, U Saw arrives from Rangoon. He volunteers to take Tin Win to a doctor in Rangoon to help restore his sight. He goes to see Mi Mi before he leaves, and they have a romantic encounter. He leaves with his uncle, who is only helping Tin Win because he believes it will help his own luck in business. Tin Win’s sight is repaired relatively easily as he had cataracts. He writes to Mi Mi every day, and she writes about the same, but his uncle intercepts both sets of letters before they reach their rightful owner. The surgery has helped U Saw’s luck, so he wonders what else he can do to boost his luck, and he doesn’t want this juvenile love to get in his way. He enrolls Tin Win in school where he excels. Following that, U Saw sends Tin Win to New York for college.

He then continues on to law school, and then is pressured into marriage by Julia’s mother. They have two children–Julia and her brother. Mi Mi continued her life in Kalaw, becoming a sort of astrologer herself. Julia doesn’t understand U Ba and his decision to quit university and return home to his mother who was growing old. She doesn’t understand why her father didn’t just disregard U Saw and go back to Kalaw for Mi Mi. U Ba claims that it is just a different culture. She learns that U Saw died in 1958, a chance for her father to come back, but by then, her father, for reasons unknown on his end, was already married, and her brother was about to be born.

U Ba tells her that her father returned there, to find Mi Mi, and when he arrives at her house, she is on her death bed. She has been waiting for him. He crawls into bed with her, and when the doctor finds them the following morning, they are both dead. Per the time and culture, the two lovers were burned side by side on separate pyres. Julia is not prepared for the news, but she still wants to see where her father and Mi Mi grew up and where they died. They happen to arrive on the anniversary of her father’s death, which has become a sort of celebration in Kalaw for the two long lost lovers. She learns that U Ba is her half-brother–the product of the romantic night that her father and Mi Mi had before he left for Rangoon. They attend the celebration together and the book ends.

Verdict: 3 stars

I wanted to read this book because Burma is a country which has been so shut off for so long. I thought it would be an interesting glimpse into a place that would be unfamiliar. It was, but in a way that I didn’t understand. The timeline of the book is very unusual as well because at the time when Julia would have supposedly been visiting, Burma was under fierce military rule which most likely would have deterred her from going, but this aspect wasn’t mentioned in the book whatsoever. Also, I just hated how weirdly fairy tale it was. Tin Win and Mi Mi–a love story so strong that he married another but yet they die together and their story is celebrated each year with a holiday. It’s baffling.

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Filed under 3 stars, Book Club, Book Review

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