Mel's Online Book Club: The Art Of Hearing Heartbeats By Jan-philipp Sendker

Posted at 04:27am on 11th May 2017


The Art of Hearing Heartbeats by Jan-Philipp Sendker was, we all agreed, the best book we'd ever read. A beautifully and evocatively written love story, it was woven throughout with profundity and truisms: a tapestry of an unknown lifestyle, embroidered with recognisable threads.


Set in Burma, the story is that of Tin Win, a New York lawyer, who suddenly disappeared. Four years later, his daughter Julia, a newly graduated law student, sets out to search for him. The only clue is a love letter written long ago to a Burmese woman. When Julia is approached by U Ba, a man in a teashop, the story of her father's previous life unfolds.

Tin Win's mother, Mya Mya, for whom tenderness was a luxury as profligate as hot water in the morning had married because her husband's parents had selected her for him. Love will came later, they assured him. And he believed them. However, when the astrologer warns them of the dangers of Saturdays and December, and Tin Win is born then, his mother wants rid of him. Following further evidence of the astrologer's predictions, including her husband's death, she abandons her son, who is taken in by a neighbour. A few years later, when Tin Win is only ten, he loses his sight.


It is his blindness that brings the tale to life. Speaking of sensory organs, and our eyes in particular, one of the monks who tutors Tin Win, says that we rely on them too heavily. We believe that we see the world around us, and yet it is only the surface that we perceive. We must learn to divine the true nature of things, he continues. In learning to do so, Tin Win hears his dying tutor's heartbeats first as a downspout steady dripping, later as no louder than a butterfly's wing beats. He perceives the fear of death as a survival instinct, but realises we must transcend it to take our leave in peace.

Meeting Mi Mi, when both are teenagers, and learning that she is unable to walk, Tin Win becomes her feet and she his eyes. He hears her heartbeats, recognises them as distinct from that of others and very soon the two fall in love. You can't lose me, he says, I am part of you and you of me. Later, when his sight is restored to him, he thinks the medics are acting as if they are liberating him from prison when, to him, he sees that the eyes are more likely to distract. Elsewhere, he speaks of the things that blind us: rage, envy, and mistrust.


It was these elements of the story that spoke most forcefully to us. We talked of the way in which faith was so much part of people's everyday lives in other parts of the world. A different faith, of course, but one that was relevant in every respect. With faith in the UK now relegated to the few and subjected to criticism by the many, we confessed to having lost out.

The acceptance of death in Burmese culture, where to know why a person died was considered a luxury was particularly relevant to me, as I was due to attend a funeral next day. Do we get over death? Do we leave the dead behind? Or do we take them with us? We agreed, in our book club discussion, that it was not something we ever get over.

Obedience and responsibility were other issues. Although too prevalent when it comes to arranged marriages like that of Tin Win's parents, U Ba's sacrifice in refusing to consider going to university as an option because he had to care for his family, was remarkable. The acceptance of authority and forgiveness were quite astonishing. Sadly, we concluded, many of these virtues appear to be in decline in western culture today.


Meeting, next day, with a couple from my book club, we agreed that this is a book that will stay with you long after you've reached The End. With so many significant matters to ponder, it was nourishing, but at the same time left you thirsting for more. The Art of Hearing Heartbeats may well be something we all need to learn.

Click here for summaries of other books read by my Book Club

Your Comments:

12th May 2017
at 4:14am
Sounds a very helpful and engaging book, which I will order on the strength of your group's enjoyment of and profit from it.
12th May 2017
at 4:14am
Sounds a very helpful and engaging book, which I will order on the strength of your group's enjoyment of and profit from it.
Mel Menzies
12th May 2017
at 8:56am
I do hope you enjoy it as much as we did, David.
13th May 2017
at 3:42am
I really liked reading your description of this book. It has made me want to read the book for myself. It sounds as though the theme echoes the thoughts about the essence of people expressed by Joyce Grenfell and Katherine Moore in their exchange of letters. between 1957 and 1979. This correspondence was published as "An Invisible Friendship". The other day a friend recommended the paperback to me. She has recently lost her husband. His funeral was one of the three we attended over the past winter. Funerals do make us think beyond the "what shall we have for supper" part of life.
Just to add: I never see what people are wearing, nor can I recognise people in the street who I should know. I chastise myself for my strange lack of observation, an awful failing in a writer. But by reading Joyce Grenfell, followed by Mel Menzies' review of Sendker's book, I'm reassured me that perhaps I am observant. Given a proper exchange, the most important and lasting qualities in people shine through: their essential spiritual nature.
Mel Menzies
21st May 2017
at 6:27am
Apologies, Susan, I've only just come across your comment - for which many thanks. I shall certainly take a look at 'An Invisible Friendship' and recommend it for book club. Trouble is, there are so many books about and we only meet half a dozen times a year, but thanks for that.

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