‘The Heart of Denis Noble’ was originally published in Litmus, an anthology of stories concerning key moments of scientific discovery. Denis Noble is Emeritus Professor of Cardiovascular Physiology at the University of Oxford, and pioneered virtual modelling of the human heart; he acted as an adviser to Alison MacLeod on the telling of this story, which sees a fictional Noble undergo a heart transplant, and dramatises episodes from the scientist’s earlier life and career.

I think this is a beautifully balanced piece of fiction. By turns, MacLeod’s prose has the precision of detail one would expect from a scientist’s viewpoint; and some wonderfully poetic moments, such as this, describing Noble’s earliest development:

Soon, the tube that was Denis Noble’s heart, a delicate scrap of mesoderm, would push towards life. In the dark of Ethel [Noble’s mother], it would twist and grope, looping blindly back towards itself in the primitive knowledge that circulation, the vital whoosh of life, deplores a straight line.

The story conveys both a sense of the demanding nature of Noble’s work (the computer he needs to use is only available between two and four in the morning, then it’s off to the slaughterhouse to buy a couple of sheeps’ hearts, before a twelve-hour day in the lab), and the scientist’s frustration at not being able to apprehend the true nature of love, for all his knowledge (“Where, he’d like to know, is love? How is love?”).

I could see this piece as an award-winner. Certainly it sets the bar high for the eventual runner-up and winner, both of which I’ve yet to read.

This is one of a series of posts reviewing the shortlist for the 2011 BBC National Short Story Award. Click here to read my other posts on the Award.