Published by Other Press
Publication date: January 21st 2014
Not all explicable things are true.
Not all truths are explicable.
Such an unusual combination: ghost story and love story and yet, in A Well-Tempered Heart it works. Julia is a successful corporate lawyer whose professional achievements are overcome by the personal disappointment of a called-off wedding. As she tries to bring herself back around she is beset with a new problem—she hears a voice in her head. Not the usual Type A talking-to-oneself voice but one distinctly different from her own, one that is deeply unhappy and pleads with her to help. After seeing a psychiatrist and getting prescription that does nothing but knock her out she agrees to go to a Buddhist meditation retreat where she meets a Burmese monk. Instead of trying to diagnose her he asks her to tell him everything she is feeling. When she’s done he tells her that he believes she is suffering from a kink in the reincarnation loop. The voice inside her is the voice of a woman whose soul is stuck in this world and needs her help to move on. The only way to do so is to find out who the woman is and why she died.
Julia goes to Burma, the home of her now-deceased father, and enlists the help of her half-brother. Through the details she tells him from the voice he is able to find a woman who may help. When they finally meet Khin Khin she tells a story that is the life of the woman Julia hears. It is this story, of a woman named Nu Nu that forms the heart in A Well-Tempered Heart. Author Jan-Philipp Sendker describes a time and a place that is ripe with natural beauty and simplicity but fraught with danger. Once Julia learns Nu Nu’s truth she knows she must see the story all the way through to ease her suffering. In doing so, she changes her own life as well.
A Well-Tempered Heart is the sequel to Jan Sendker’s first book, The Art of Hearing Heartbeats, which is Julia’s father’s tale. I have not read it but did not find that detracted from the plot. Sendker evokes Burma and the juxtaposition of simple rural lives against a threatening military that demands the lives of their sons—not even as soldiers but as human land mine sweepers—with prose that is lush and as mystical as the villagers’ beliefs. Using a ghost story for the purposes of resolving the past and healing the future is a wonderful change-of-pace. Adding an exotic locale means that A Well-Tempered Heart is great escapist reading.