Jan-Philipp Sendker’s latest book, A Well-Tempered Heart, easily stands on its own as an admirably written and well-translated novel. But billed as “The sequel to the international bestseller The Art of Hearing Heartbeats,” the work has the impossible task of continuing a beloved story. The Art of Hearing Heartbeats, for the few who have not yet read it, gained momentum as an inspirational novel that seemed more of a self-help book for weary Westerners. Part of the delight in reading it came from surprise in the author’s talent, imagination, and portrayal of life in remote Burma.
Thanks to the speed of publication of the sequel, readers should remember Julia Win—the daughter who solved the mystery of her father’s strange disappearance by visiting his homeland. In Burma, Julia receives the most precious of inheritances: “faith in the magical power of love…” Not to mention a tender, helpful, half-brother named U Ba. In A Well-Tempered Heart, Julia is on another quest, eventually accompanied by the ever-patient U Ba. The narrative begins when Julia’s job as a Manhattan attorney, her health and her sanity are all endangered after she starts hearing a strange voice.
The initial sections, with the seemingly internal voice asking questions like “Why do you live alone? To whom do you feel close? What do you want in life?” takes a bit of patience from the reader. Once Julia’s story incorporates other well-developed characters, such as her artist friend Amy, the interweaving opinions build interest and overcome skepticism. With the introduction of the Burmese woman Nu Nu, Sendker’s story finds its center. Nu Nu is fascinating not because of her heroism but because of her utter believability. She is a deeply flawed woman who realizes her shortcomings and pays dearly for them. Nu Nu knows, “There are moments that we simply cannot endure. They transform us into someone else.”
Once again Sendker presents images that will imbed themselves into a reader’s consciousness. One simple yet affecting moment for Julia is during her retreat into the country with Amy:
There was a freeze during the night. A thin layer of frost covered the grass. The house was empty: the others had already gone to the first meditation. I saw their footprints in the lawn. Every step we take leaves a trace.
Further on in the novel the author gives us
A small farmer’s wife. A big heart with surprisingly little room to spare. But it was the only one she had.
There is one plot device that drives much of A Well-Tempered Heart yet is derivative of a famous novel that was made into an acclaimed movie some years ago. (It is impossible to list the work without exposing this key storyline.) Perhaps Sendker intentionally did this to present his points about the true depths of forgiveness and the limits of even the deepest love; perhaps he wasn’t intentionally aware of the borrowing. Regardless, many readers will also gasp at this similarity and pause before continuing (and continuing is my recommendation).
Exploring illness and self-determination, the vagaries of military occupation, caring for the unwanted, reincarnation wishes—Sendker touches on topics that will prove enlightening to his audience. Once again readers are reminded that “Not all truths are explicable.” However, this time around a bit of the magic has faded. But I will be ever thankful for being introduced to the phrase, “In the hell of the well-intentioned.”