It all begins with a question. What is the most powerful emotion in life-love or fear? Julia Win, American raised daughter of a Burmese father and American mother, would positively say fear. For some reason that she cannot comprehend, her seemingly pragmatic father seems to believe absolutely that the answer is love. On the morning of Julia’s law school graduation, her father abruptly disappears and fails to return, despite leaving a trail halfway across the world that leads investigators to believe that his exodus was voluntary. Sparked by a love letter that she finds among his things, Julia decides to follow her reserved father to the place she suspects he spent the first twenty years of his life, twenty years about which he has never spoken. She has two goals in mind-to try to find answers about the man her father was before he became a successful immigrant and to discover what role the mysterious woman, Mi Mi, with whom he appeared to correspond for almost half a century, might have played in his missing twenty years. Once in Burma, Julia meets an elder in her father’s home village who shares with her the incredible story of the part of her father she never knew.
As the reader tags along with U Ba, while he tells Julia the tale that begins to open her father’s soul to her, it becomes apparent that there is a wealth of Eastern wisdom that is going to pass from the perceptive elder into the heart of a young woman who desperately wants to answer questions not only of her father’s past, but also about her own relationship with him, and how her own consciousness can be enlarged by the things she learns.
For the most part the characters are fairly solid, with the exception of Tin Win, Julia’s father. I found there to be too vast a gap in the characterization of the father that Julia knew and the man that he was in Burma as a young man. However, as most of the book takes place in Burma, and the author makes the dichotomy that her father is revealed to be one of Julia’s main struggles, in an odd way it worked and didn’t bother me as much as it might have otherwise. Still this issue was concerning enough, in my opinion, that it cost this lovely novel a five star rating.
In the end, life circles of love and time are both completed, giving this book a perfectly tuned conclusion, but not in the way readers are probably expecting. I found it sublime, perhaps the finest denouement of any novel I have ever read. Absolutely nothing was forced or rushed, in perfect harmony with the pacing and ambience of the novel.
There is so much to adore about this book. The writing is absolutely gorgeous and frequently profound. Much of the power in the book comes from the transcendence of the simple things in everyday life and the emotions that cross boundaries of culture and time. In the novel, the main character really does possess the ability to hear heartbeats, but I think there is a deeper meaning implied by the title, that of being attuned to people in such a visceral fashion that you can reach into the very center of their being. The incredible descriptive passages deprive the readers of their eyes and lead them down a path built on their other senses. Kudos are definitely due to Kevin Wiliarty, who did the translation into English from Jan-Philipp Sendker’s original German. The beauty of the language in this novel shows great skill on Mr. Wiliarty’s part.
The second element of the novel that cost it five stars was the narration. Cassandra Campbell has narrated a number of titles that I have enjoyed, and I think that her mellow tone was perfect for the material. However, her pace was so painstakingly slow that it caused otherwise exquisite material to stall and lose impact. For the first time ever I used the feature on Overdrive which allows the speed to be increased. Playing the audio at 1.25 helped considerably, but at times, especially during longer dialogs, the characters took on an almost Chipmunk sound.
I definitely recommend reading this novel in print, not only for the audio issues mentioned above, but also because there are going to be many passages that readers will want to highlight, such as those that I have shared here (Thank goodness for the Kindle Big Brother that keeps track of all Kindle readers’ highlighted passages, enabling me to add these here despite listening to the audio.):
“I speak of a love that brings sight to the blind. Of a love stronger than fear. I speak of a love that breathes meaning into life, that defies the natural laws of deterioration, that causes us to flourish, that knows no bounds. I speak of the triumph of the human spirit over selfishness and death.”
“Must one have seen the world? In this village, in every house, in every shack, you will find the entire range of human emotions: love and hate, fear and jealousy, envy and joy”
“Not all truths are explicable, Julia,” he said. “And not all explicable things are true.”
“There is nothing, for good or for evil, of which a person is incapable.”
“Life, U May told her, is a gift full of riddles in which suffering and happiness are inextricably intertwined. Any attempt to have one without the other was simply bound to fail.”
“He mumbled something about a virus, the virus of love, the infection which, if she had understood him correctly, everyone carried, but which only ever afflicted a few.”
"Do we leave the dead behind or do we take them with us? I think we take them with us. They accompany us. They remain with us if in another form."