Thursday, March 06, 2008

Human Traces by Sebastian Faulks

Jacques Rebierre and Thomas Midwinter; both sixteen when the story starts in 1876, come from different countries and contrasting families. They are united by an ambition to understand how the mind works and whether madness is the price we pay for being human.

As psychiatrists, their quest takes them from the squalor of the Victorian lunatic asylum to the crowded lecture halls of the renowned Professor Charcot in Paris; from the heights of the Sierra Madre in California to the plains of unexplored Africa. Their search is made urgent by the case of Jacques's brother Olivier, for whose severe illness no name has yet been found.

Thomas's sister Sonia becomes the pivotal figure in the volatile relationship between the two men, which threatens to explode with the arrival in their Australian sanatorium of an enigmatic patient, Fraulein Katharina von A, whose illness epitomises all that divides them.

As the concerns of the old century fade and the First World War divides Europe, the novel rises to the climax in which the question of what it means to be alive seems to hang in the balance.

This is Sebastian Faulk's most ambitious novel yet, with scenes of emotional power recalling his most celebrated work, yet seen here on an even larger scale.

Moving and challenging in equal measure, Human Traces explores the question of what kind of beings men and women really are.

Do you have those authors who you know that you should want to read, but really just don't? Sebastian Faulks is one of those authors for me. Having read Girl at Lion D'or back in my pre-blogging days and being less than overwhelmed by it, I kept on thinking that I really should at the very least try and read Birdsong or Charlotte Gray, but by the time I got to the library checkout or the bookstore checkout the idea had completely slipped from my mind. Then a while ago, this book, Human Traces was nominated for book club discussion in one of the groups that I in. While I am late in reading it, I am definitely glad to have done so, and will be making a more concerted effort to read more by Faulks.

This book is a chunkster, and it is about a subject and ideas that could be considered pretty dry and boring unless it is something that you are already fascinated by them. And yet, it was surprisingly readable.

Following a chance meeting when they were both sixteen years of age, Thomas Midwinter and Jacques Rebriere both decide to devote themselves to the relatively new branch of medicine which looks at the brain and the diseases associated with that organ. For Jacques, this interest and passion is understandable. His own older brother Olivier has been gradually withdrawing into a silent world where he can only be reached infrequently. For Thomas, his decision is a little less straight forward - perhaps he was searching for something and having found it that then became passionate about it. By the end of the novel, however, their passion had become very, very personal to both of them.

Over the years Jacques and Thomas remain in close contact as they finish their schooling and then go onto further education, gaining their medical qualifications. Jacques is working as an intern in Paris. under the influence of many of the foremost European specialists of the time, and Thomas finds himself working in a Victorian asylum. His job is to assess the patients as they come in and allocate them to a ward, all based on nothing more than a visual inspection, and for many of those patients that is where they will spend the remainder of their days. The conditions described are horrific, and yet only a short time earlier these asylums were seen to be at the cutting edge of the treatment of these types of conditions.

In due course, Thomas and Jacques dream to build a treatment clinic start to come true, assisted by Thomas's sister, Sonia, who after an unsuccessful marriage early in the book, ends up married to Jacques.

What follows is a tale of science, of discovery, friendship and family, rivalry, and adventure.

There were occasions throughout the narrative where I did glaze over just a little with all of the discussion about the brain, about the nature of neurological conditions and descriptions of medical procedures, but there were fewer examples of that than I actually expected.

I am kind of torn in some ways about this book, because in order to keep the novel interesting, the author chose to send the two main characters on separate journeys - one to America and the other to Africa - and then he also focused on the life of another character for a short while showing what they went through during WWI. Whilst these trips away from the main narrative were definitely enjoyable and very interesting of themselves, I am not 100 percent sure that they were necessary. At over 600 pages long, there could perhaps of been a bit less padding in the book.

I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed this book!

This was the first book that I have read for the Chunkster Challenge 2008.

Cross posted at Historical Tapestry


  1. When I read this was a chunkster, my eyes glazed over. I'm struggling with one myself so it may be a while before I can talk myself into another one. That said, I appreciated your review. This book does sound interesting. Maybe next year.

  2. I suppose I'll have to add this one to my TBR list, too. I am fascinated by mental illness and what it says about "normal" and somewhat by the way the brain works and what it means to be human. I'm not looking forward to the length either, though. It seems that I'm finding it less and less possible to get through really long books even though I used to read them all the time.

  3. I read birdsong and found it difficult to actually enjoy at first, but thankfully it did pick up and I thought the book overall was very well written. I am so intrigued and interested with books about the war and this was definitely are good one to feed that hunger.

    I shall now add this one to my book list :D