Instructions for a Second-Hand Heart – review

heartOn Tuesday I went to the launch for Tamsyn Murray’s Instructions for a Second-Hand Heart. It was a fab party in the stunning children’s department of Waterstones Piccadilly.

I had started reading the book on the way to the launch, and finished it on the journey home. Tamsyn had warned me that I would need tissues – and I did, though I hung on grimly to the very end before emotion got the better of me! It’s rare for me to shed actual tears at a book, so an extra star to Tamsyn for achieving that 😉

Tamsyn explains how long the journey to publication has taken for this book - four years!
Tamsyn explains how long the journey to publication has taken for this book – four years!

So – to the story. Jonny is being kept alive by a machine called a Berlin Heart, because his own heart is damaged. He needs a heart transplant urgently, but as he explains, ‘it’s not like you can just pick one up down the high street or online.’ Transplants are tricky at the best of times, and Jonny has an unusual blood type, which makes him harder to match. So he lives in hospital, attending the school there and exchanging banter with his best friend Emily, who’s going through some extremely aggressive chemotherapy for her leukemia.

Niamh has a love/hate relationship with her twin Leo. Well, to be honest, it’s mostly hate – and I really liked that. Because who says you HAVE to love your sibling just because you’re related? Leo is the golden boy of the family, high achieving, easy to get on with, popular etc etc. And living with someone who finds life effortless can make you bitter. Niamh can’t help the bad moods; the way she automatically snaps at anything he says; the way she resents his success because it makes it even more glaringly obvious that she’s not good at anything. And so she almost revels in her ‘badness’, even though underneath she’s desperately unhappy because she believes right to her core that her parents love Leo more than her. It’s easier to love someone who smiles at you, isn’t it?

Tamsyn with her Usborne editor Stephanie King
Tamsyn with her Usborne editor Stephanie King

And then Leo dies – suddenly, in a shocking way, in the second chapter. Even though you know it’s coming (because otherwise there’s no plot), it’s still a scene that makes the reader gasp (trust me, because Tamsyn read it aloud at the launch and people did proper gasps). And suddenly…there’s no golden twin. There’s no one to compare herself against. And Niamh has to find an answer to the question: if there’s no Leo, who is she any more?

In a really heartbreaking scene, Niamh and her parents have to say goodbye to Leo. And then they agree that his organs can be donated.

So Jonny gets his heart. Bye bye hospital, hello Real World (along with the extraordinary number of pills he has to take for the rest of his life to ensure his immune system doesn’t attack his new heart). Jonny too doesn’t know who he is any more. But he’s compelled to find out whose heart now beats in his body. You would want to know, wouldn’t you? I would. Because the thing that kept that person alive now keeps you alive – and so the two of you are bound in blood, linked through life and death. It must be an overwhelming thing to face: one that makes you ask a lot of Big Questions.

But Jonny’s Biggest Question is the one that drives him to search media reports for sudden deaths of boys his age, and to thus seek out Niamh (which, through the wonders of social networking, is now perfectly straightforward). And then, of course, they fall in love. And that’s where my references to the plot end 😉

img_3736I loved Niamh in all her spiky unhappiness. She’s so damaged her own self-esteem that you do wonder how on earth she can find light at the end of the tunnel. But sometimes when you’re in a tunnel, a stranger can provide a lifeline that friends and family can’t. Niamh can talk to Jonny online without worrying about hurting his feelings. They have no history (so she thinks), so it’s a completely clean slate. She doesn’t have to pretend to be someone she’s not; she can drop-in on message conversations when she feels like it, and leave when she doesn’t. In fact, the book shows perhaps more clearly than most just how close two people can become via instant messages; and how it happens more quickly than if they were meeting face to face, with all the awkwardness that brings.

Jonny too is believable and sympathetic as a character. But it’s poor Emily, his best friend in hospital, who really broke my heart. Emily, who’s been there for him all the time, now left behind as Jonny begins his new life. It’s an important reminder that many children spend years, if not their whole lives, undergoing painful treatment for all kinds of conditions.

I also found the family’s farewell to Leo particularly affecting to read. As someone who went through a bereavement last year and said goodbye to a body in hospital, it all felt very real and honest.

Instructions for a Second-Hand Heart is a beautifully written, devastating but hopeful story of two people who can perhaps heal the wounds in each other and through doing so, find strength in their own hearts to face the future.  Special mention to Hannah Cobley and the design team at Usborne for the really stunning front cover. Out now and highly recommended.

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