Friday, August 2, 2013

The Art of Hearing Heartbeats by Jan-Philipp Sendker

In this novel, a young woman named Julia tries to unravel the mystery of what happened to her father.

Julia Winn was born in New York City in 1968 of an American mother and a Burmese father. Although her father grew up in Burma, he came to the United States to go to school, got married here, and became a powerful and wealthy attorney in Manhattan. On the morning after Julia graduated from law school, he woke her to say he had an appointment in Boston and didn’t know when he would return. In fact, he never came back, and he never even went to Boston. Flight records showed that he flew to Hong Kong instead. Hotel records indicated that he stayed at the Peninsula and ordered in a dinner of chicken curry. The next day he flew to Bangkok, and four weeks later a construction worker found his passport near the airport. Julia and her mother learned of no further trace of him.

Four years later, Julia’s mother finds a box of her husband’s appointment calendars and similar items behind a dresser. She sends the parcel to her daughter, noting, “I’ve included the last picture of us. I don’t need any of it anymore.” Among the things in the package is a love letter her father wrote in 1955 but never mailed to “My beloved Mi Mi.” The address on the letter’s envelope is a residence in Burma. With so little to go on and against her mother’s wishes, Julia heads to Burma to find out what happened to her father.

But where to begin her search? The address on the unmailed envelope is now nearly 40 years old, but that would be her start. She then makes a list of things she needs: a car and driver, a tour guide, a local map, etc. Unexpectedly in a teahouse, she meets an old man whose eyes are deep in their sockets, and who cannot stop staring at Julia. He says he has been waiting for her to arrive for four years. And then he tells her the story of her father, a story she has never before heard of an abandoned child who became blind, who fell in love, and then who had to leave behind his beloved Mi Mi and go to America.

How could this story be true? Her father had no vision problems, and he never spoke of being abandoned as a child. However, he never talked at all about his childhood. Could her father, a prominent Wall Street attorney, have been a sightless boy, entranced by a girl named Mi Mi whose beating heart was the most beautiful sound her ever heard? “Her heart was different from the others—softer, more melodic. It didn’t beat; it sang.” And if this boy did grow up to be her father, was he still alive and in Burma, and was he now with Mi Mi?

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