My neighborhood book group met two weeks ago for a dinner out to celebrate our 150th book (I joined at book #70). We discussed The Art of Hearing Heartbeats by Jan-Philipp Sendker, an intricate love story spanning decades and set in Burma.
As the novel opens, an American woman named Julia is sitting in a small café in a rural mountain village in Burma. She has traveled all the way from New York City in search of her missing father. He disappeared several years earlier, leaving Julia, her brother, and their mother without a word of explanation. Police found he had purchased a plane ticket to Hong Kong and from there to Thailand, but his trail disappeared after that. When Julia finds a stack of old letters among his things addressed and never sent to someone named Mi Mi in Burma, she herself travels to the address on the letters in the remote town of Kalaw.
In that café, Julia is surprised when an old man named U Ba approaches her and knows who she is and all about her father. He even knows tiny details about her, including the name of her favorite story that her father used to tell her as a child. He says he can tell her about her father, but he must start at the beginning. She returns to the café the next day, and U Ba begins his story.
U Ba tells of a family that lived in the village long ago and had a son named Tin Win. An astrologer predicted that Tin Win’s life would be filled with sorrow, and, as part of a very superstitious culture, the couple believed him, especially Tin Win’s mother. Tin Win was educated at a monastery in town where a monk named U May took a special interest in him. Meanwhile, U Ba also tells the story of a young girl in the village named Mi Mi who was born with defective feet and could not walk.
Most of the novel consists of this old story about Tin Win and Mi Mi and how they each grew up, told to Julia by U Ba. There are occasional brief passages set in the present, as Julia finds her way around the village, gets to know U Ba better, and remembers her father and her childhood. Gradually, the past and the present come together, and both Julia and the reader figure out how the old story is linked to the present and to Julia’s father, though the final pieces of the puzzle are not revealed until the end.
This is an intriguing novel – part mystery, part family drama, part love story – that is set against the mountains of Burma. Historical details are included about the period of British colonialism when Tin Win and Mi Mi were children. There is a fairy-tale like quality to the story that U Ba tells and even hints of possible magic/supernatural forces. The prose is descriptive and lush, and I tagged many passages, especially where the monks were concerned, as there is a strong element of Buddhism to the story.
Despite all this, I didn’t love this novel. I liked it OK and had no problem finishing it, but I didn’t find it all that compelling. A couple of other members of my book group felt the same way, though we were in the minority. Most of our book group loved the book. I don’t know why it didn’t grab me in the same way, and since most people in our group thoroughly enjoyed it, I’ve tried to give a fair and balanced review here. I did tag many quotes to add to my Quote Journal, so it obviously appealed to me in some ways. If you like this kind of epic, exotic love story that connects past with present, you should give this unique novel a try.
326 pages, Other Press LLC (translated from German)