The first third of The Art of Hearing Heartbeats is enthralling. The remainder of the novel is problematic; it sustained my interest but not my enthusiasm.
After telling her that he was leaving for an appointment in Boston, Julia Win's father boarded a flight to Thailand and disappeared. The Times described him as "an influential Wall Street lawyer" but the police suspect he had a hidden past. Burmese by birth, Tin Win became an American citizen in 1959. Julia, a recent law school graduate, viewed her father as staid, reliable, out-of-date -- not the sort of person whose life is filled with mystery or who takes an unannounced trip to Thailand. Four years after his disappearance, Julia finds a letter he wrote to a woman named Mi Mi. Julia travels to Kalaw, determined to find Mi Mi, the only clue to her father's past. There she meets U Ba, who has been waiting to tell her the story Tin Win told him, a story from which "a life emerged, revealing its power and its magic."
Just as we're settling into Julia's quest, the story shifts to the one told by U Ba. It starts with Mya Mya, a young Burmese woman who regards the birth of Tin Win as a calamity. An astrologer's prediction that he will lose his sight is soon fulfilled. After his parents die, Tin is taken to a monastery. It is there that he first meets Mi Mi -- or, more precisely, that he first hears her heartbeat. Mi Mi was born with "crippled feet"; their disabilities draw Tin and Mi Mi together.
Hearts and heartbeats are frequent images in the novel. Jan-Philipp Sendker also makes good use of the imagery of balance: Mi Mi, for instance, is emotionally well balanced even though she is incapable of balancing on her misshapen feet. Tin balances his blindness with exceptional hearing. Mi Mi and Tin balance each other: when Tin carries Mi Mi on his back, her eyes provide their twinned vision, his feet set them in unitary motion. Julia, despite having all the advantages of a stable, upper class family and western education, finds that she needs to bring her life into balance: understanding her father becomes a necessary condition of understanding herself.
As related by U Ba, Tin Win's tale is a love story that too often shares the characteristics of a well written fairy-tale. There are times when the descriptions of Mi Mi's blossoming love are a little too obvious, too melodramatic, too much like Barry Manilow with punchier prose. Moreover, the description of their developing love creates a dull lull in the story arc. After Tin leaves Mi Mi to meet his uncle in Rangoon the novel regains some of its force, particularly after it circles back to Julia and her uncertainty about her father's love (understandable given his abandonment of her). At that point a different and more original love story emerges, one that addresses a child's love for a parent. U Ba sums it up: "Love has so many different faces that our imagination is not prepared to see them all."
As the novel winds down, we learn the rest of Tin's story. It comes to a predictable finish but (despite its greater length) it seems less important than Julia's. To the extent that Tin's story is about the purity of devotion shared by two separated lovers, I tend to agree with one of the characters who observes that love is a form of madness and hopes it isn't contagious. And as much as I would like to believe in the strength of heart displayed by Tin and (especially) Mi Mi, I found it incongruous that Tin couldn't give the same unconditional love to his daughter, and I was disappointed that Sendker didn't address that incongruity in greater depth.
It's difficult to introduce an element of mysticism in a book that isn't wholly a fantasy. The best writers (Haruki Murakami comes to mind) manage to convince the reader that the mystical is real. That Sendker doesn't quite pull it off is my largest reservation about The Art of Hearing Heartbeats. Its fine prose and entertaining moments nonetheless make the novel worth reading, and an unanticipated twist at the end pays a rewarding dividend.