A Well-Tempered Heart by Jan-Philipp Sendker

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A Well-Tempered Heart by Jan-Philipp Sendker

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: Ten years after the events in The Art of Hearing Heartbeats Julia Win starts hearing voices. This leads her back to her father's homeland of Burma and the heart-wrenching tale of mother's love and the choices it forces her into. Just as beautiful and satisfying as the previous book - but I would urge readers to start at the beginning.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 388 Date: March 2014
Publisher: Polygon
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9781846972850

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Writing on Sendker's previous novel The Art of Hearing Heartbeats for this website, I said Sendker is German-born (Hamburg 1960) and worked as American correspondent for Stern (1990 to 95) and then as its Asian correspondent from '95 to '99. He now lives in Berlin. This probably gives him enough global insight to write about a US-born high flyer with an Asian heritage heading off to Burma to find out the truth of her father's disappearance. It probably also gives him the language skills to do it in English without recourse to a translator.

I may have missed the fact that he might well have had a translator.

Certainly for this follow-up Kevin Wiliarty gets his due credit (and my apologies to him or his colleague-in-arms if such there was for any error in my previous review).

All of which is very much to the point because if you haven't read The Art of Hearing Heartbeats, I would like to stop you right here. Go read it!

Not only is it important to have done so in order to fully understand the Well-Tempered Heart, it is also a fabulous book.

How pleased was I then to be offered the follow-up!

Ten years on from the previous episode, Julia Win, successful corporate lawyer specialising in intellectual property rights is exhausted, unhappy and alone. Somewhat distant in all senses of the word, if not exactly estranged, from her mother and brother, she has recently left a relationship that should have worked but just didn't and her only real connection is with her artist friend Amy Lee.

A week before Thanksgiving, an episode at work sees her walking out of an important meeting without explanation, her every instinct to simply hole up at home for a while and hope she feels better. It's not likely though. Two things make it unlikely.

One is the latest letter from Kalaw in Burma – a reminder that she has another brother, a half-brother at any rate – a whole world away: a world away from corporate lawyering and bizarre notions of ownership of ideas. U Ba found Julia in the previous book, or she found him, along with the whole history of how she came to be. U Ba is older and wiser, and has a very non-materialist take on life.

The second is the immediate reason for her loss of concentration: she has started hearing voices.

Well, to be specific, A voice.

A woman. A very frightened and distressed woman, with words of fear and warning.

What else is Julia to do in these circumstances but consult her friend Amy. Amy is also one of the world's wise souls, so when Julia turns up Amy's solution is to persuade her friend to join her on a Buddhist retreat. Amy considers herself 'almost a Buddhist' and isn't above breaking the retreat's rules, but her heart is in the right place and between her and a monk that Julia meets that weekend the spadework is done.

Julia is going back to Burma.

Only by finding out who the woman in her head is or was will she be able to find any peace.

Like the previous book, Sendker uses Julia's relationship with U Ba to talk about modern Burma (or at least the country as it was circa 2006 which is when the book is set – we know it will have moved on rapidly in the last eight years)… but then he finds someone with another story to tell, which takes us into the country's past.

Nu Nu was a small farmer's wife [with] A big heart with surprisingly little room to spare. But it was the only one she had.

Nu Nu's tale is the heart of this book – the story of a mother and her two sons. It's the story of how maybe we're only capable of so much love, and how sometimes it might not be enough. Or maybe it is the story of how we have no idea how much love we are capable of, but it still isn't enough. Love, despite what the fairy tales would have us believe, does not conquer all. It does not conquer might and the evil reflected in shiny black boots. When war comes, truth might be the first casualty, but love is a very close second: manipulated and mocked and mishandled.

But it continues to linger and echo. The decisions we make for love, can have horrible consequences… but then horrible consequences might have good ones… And we may never know one way or the other.

Like the first book, this is undeniably a love story: a different kind of love this time, but it follows the established theme of trying to understand the inspiration and passions that drive the human heart.

And then towards the end, there's a hint that maybe another love – another impossible love – might just be being kindled in the languid days of keeping body and soul together in an impoverished monastery far from anywhere, watching over the damaged ones, and the dying ones.

As you'd expect from the tone and the place and the pitch, the damaged and the dying are often the strongest amongst us. And the most perceptive. Maybe we should look at them differently.

The sense of place is pitch-perfect as before. The oriental wisdom is overlaid with the necessary self-deprecating smile. The potential for redemption weeps through every page.

Loved it.

If you've enjoyed Sendker's Burma books, then we think you'll also like The Road to Wanting by Wendy Law-Yone

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Buy A Well-Tempered Heart by Jan-Philipp Sendker at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy A Well-Tempered Heart by Jan-Philipp Sendker at Amazon.com.

Booklists.jpg A Well-Tempered Heart by Jan-Philipp Sendker is in the Top Ten Literary Fiction Books of 2014.


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