Tonight, I’m reviewing a novel that is perhaps too old for the children at St Michael’s and is more at home in a secondary school library. The book is Instructions for a Second-hand Heart by Tamsyn Murray, published by Usborne.
I first found out about this novel a few weeks ago, when I attended a creativity talk as part of the Oxford Literary Festival (you can read my review here). Tamsyn was one of the panel of authors, hosted by Jonathan Stroud, and she talked a little about the research she had to undertake when writing this novel.
I was immediately drawn to this because it dealt with a subject that I’d also written about – albeit nine years ago – in a short story. It shared a common theme – organ donation amongst teens – although how we both executed the story from that point onwards differs greatly!
Instructions for a Second-Hand Heart starts with a clever premise: one boy, Jonny, is desperately ill in hospital, waiting for a heart donor so he has a chance of living a proper life, instead of being hooked up to a Berlin Heart, a life-saving invention but one that has potentially serious side effects. Another boy, Leo, is on holiday with his twin sister Niamh when a dare between the two leads to his accidental death. While alive, Leo had expressed a desire to become an organ donor should he die, and his family make the decision to agree to his wishes when it becomes clear that he will never wake up from the fall that prematurely ended his life.
The novel varies between the two points of Jonny and Niamh, weaving the story through their experiences since the donation occurred. Jonny loves feeling relatively ‘normal’, though the daily drug routine to stop his body rejecting his new heart becomes a burden. However, he cannot stop thinking about where his heart came from. He feels guilty that his own freedom has come at the expense of another’s life, and starts trying to investigate who the potential donor might be. His research leads him to Leo’s family, and to Niamh, who originally thinks he is a stalker, as Jonny never reveals why he is so interested in her and Leo. However, the two gradually get to know each other via texting and then meeting and their feelings for each other grow bigger than mere friendship.
All this while, Niamh is struggling with how she and her family are dealing (or not) with the grief following Leo’s death. She feels as though others wish it was her who had died, not her twin, who seemed like the golden boy everyone loved – good at sports, friendly, academic. Even in death she feels that Leo is haunting and taunting her and she cannot bear the sympathetic glances people at her school cast her way.
The friendship and then romance that develops between Jonny and Niamh is sweet. They are two souls who are hurting for different reasons but because of the same cause although the reader is always aware that Jonny, while truly enamoured of Niamh, has not revealed his true identity. As the novel develops, it becomes harder for Jonny to admit who he is and the reader knows that it cannot possibly end well if he does.
Any novel that deals with the issue of organ donation will be an emotional read, especially if it starts with the death of the donor himself. I found myself in need of tissues at the beginning of the book and then again at the end (no spoilers!). The novel movingly explores not only the issue of transplantation but also life in children’s hospital wards and the reality that there is not always a happy ending for these patients who have never really had a proper start to their lives. Tamsyn Murray handles the relationship between Jonny and Niamh sensitively and believably, making this a real tearjerker in the best sense of the word.