Book review: The Art of Hearing Heartbeats by Jan-Philipp Sendker


The Art of Hearing Heartbeats
by Jan-Philipp Sendker

This book was the choice for June in our women’s book club. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to go to the meeting. I would have loved to hear the discussion. The majority of the story is set in Burma, a country I know very little about. I know that it has a tropical climate and jungles. As I read this book I learned that it also has mountains where it is cooler. It rains a lot there. I did see the B movie, “Anaconda”, set in Burma. The author mentions water snakes, but he doesn’t say they are 40 feet long, eat humans in 1 bite, and are able to capsize a boat. That’s the movie version.

Julia Win is a well–educated young lawyer. She has lived in New York City all her life with her family. Abruptly, her father Burmese father, Tin Win, leaves the family. He disappears and no one is sure where or why. Then they find a love letter he had written to a woman in Burma many years ago. Her mother is bitter claiming she never had 100% of Tin Win’s love and discourages Julia from going; not when her legal career is on the rise. But Julia has to solve the mystery, so she goes to Burma to a mountain village name Kalaw.

She is not sure where to start, but a strange man approaches her and though she asks him if he knows her father and how to find him, the stranger insists he is close by. U Baw, the stranger, will not take her to him until he tells her the story of her father’s life. This does not take place in one sitting, but stretches on for several days. Each time he talks, she wonders how he could know so much about her father and his life. He is as mysterious as her father.

He tells how Tin Win’s mother thought he was born on a bad day and would bring tragedy to the family. She believed in the words of the astrologers. She did not love this child and when her husband died in an accident, she knew it was because of her son’s curse. She leaves him telling him she’ll be back, but never comes. He remains on the stump staring in the direction of where she walked away. He goes blind quickly. He is about to die when a neighbor woman takes him in and helps him thrive.

He is sent to a school in the monastery and is a gifted student. He learns to observe life through his ears, even to the point that he can hear a caterpillar crawl, heartbeats from across the room, and whether or not a person’s heartbeat matches what they are saying. He hears the most melodious voice and finds that it belongs to an amazing girl who is crippled and has to crawl through life. She becomes his eyes and she becomes his legs. Theirs is not an ordinary relationship by any means. No love has ever been deeper than this.

But again, the advice of the astrologers intervenes in his life again, forever changing it.

The author writes beautifully and half of the time I could not tell that U Ba was telling the story. It was almost as if a movie was being shown of Tin Win’s life. I really enjoyed the book a lot. It was a pleasure to read. It opened my eyes to a totally different world. I would give the book 4 ½ out of 5 stars only because I figured out a key point early on in the book.

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