Thursday, June 18, 2015

The Art of Hearing Heartbeats by Jan-Philipp Sendker

This is not a new book, but it was recently recommended to me and it was really interesting.  First, it was translated from the German and it still reads beautifully, almost like poetry, which I often find is hard to do in a translation - so kudos both to the author and the translator.

I don't want to give away too much of the plot as the whole premise of the book is watching the past unfold together with the main character.  But here's what I can say:  Julia Win's father disappears on the morning after her graduation from law school without explanation which is totally out of character for him.  He does wake her to tell her he was headed to Boston for a business trip (he was a NY lawyer), and he does go to the airport but he does not fly to Boston.  Instead he is eventually traced to Los Angeles, Hong Kong and Bangkok when the trail goes cold.  His passport was found near the Bangkok airport and investigators speculate he may have been murdered or in some sort of accident while trying to leave Bangkok.

Four years later (with little explanation for why four years pass), Julia's mother gives her some of her father's personal effects and in them Julia finds an unsent letter to a woman named Mi Mi in her father's native Burma.  Julia's mother admits she knows nothing about her husband's first 20 years in Burma, despite desperate pleas for information.  The letter appears to be to an old lover and Julia decides to track her down in an effort to find her father.

And this is where the mystery begins.  She travels to Burma, marvelling in and suffering from its primitive state, and at a somewhat dirty tea shop is approached by U Ba, an older man who claims he knows her father and his story.  Though she is skeptical that he is a scam artist who had been fed information by her hotel she decides to listen to him.  Over a few days he paints the picture of her father's past - and the reader is transported 50 years earlier to colonial Burma to learn what happened to him, who Mi Mi was, how Julia's father ended up in the US and what eventually happened to him. I don't want to give any of that away as the careful telling of that story is what makes this book so interesting.  I wouldn't say it's the most suspenseful story I've ever read but it certainly takes some interesting twists and turns.

I definitely recommend this book.  It is different and, as I said before, beautifully written.

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