Sebastian Faulks does not disappoint with Human Traces, builds up the story taking you with him, as your eyes read, your mind visualises and your emotions follows, you think you'll just read a chapter, but find yourself wanting to read 'just one more'.
This book was recommended to me, but before I started reading it I foolishly read some of the reviews on online bookstore. This put me off starting it and then while I was reading it I kept waiting for it to become hard going or boring. It never did. I will say as others have said that sometimes the text and ideas are hard to follow and need reading over a couple of times, but these sections only last a few pages and soon you are back reading the beautiful family saga which the book ultimately is.
Sebastian Faulks has taken his obvious interest in the thoughts and philosophies of humans and woven them into a deeply human and touching story. I loved all the characters and cared for them. It was one of those books which I couldn't wait to get to bed to read and woke up early in the morning to see what would happen next.
It explores what it means to be human which although set in the past is very relevant to today. It gives insight into scientific research and the ways that new ideas are put forward then discounted or fall out of fashion. It made me realise that we are still a long long way from understanding the human mind one hundred years later.
I thought the ending was perfect and very satisfying. An incredibly rewarding book which makes you marvel at the skill of the writer.
This is the third book I've read by Sebastian Faulks and rightly hailed as his most ambitious novel yet. In many ways the seeds of this book lie back in A Fool's Alphabet, a clever book that probably has been underestimated. Birdsong made his career in many ways, an outstanding novel of the Great War and a passionate one; it has become essential reading for schoolchildren. Human Traces is an epic book in many senses. It's a history of two families, a tale of love and loss, but most of a desire to find reasons for the fragility of the human mind.
The main characters of the story are determined in the late 1800's with Jacques Rebière, a son of a peasant farmer with aspirations to be more than his birthright. Jacques himself is clever and although he has to work for his father from an early age, the Curé aids him in his pursuit of science and the human mind. He has an older brother, Olivier, who became ill just after puberty and is now classed as an idiot who has to live in the barn because of his behavior. After a shocking episode in which Olivier trashes Jacques work, he is forced to be chained up and Jacques life's work begins to bring a cure about for his 'mad' brother.
In a quiet English village, Torrington House near Lincoln is home to the Midwinter family, a shabby genteel family who try to live within their means. Sonia, the elder sister is forced into a loveless marriage at 18 and manages to influence her younger brother Thomas, whose dreamy ways are not suited to any of a younger son's career choices. The older son, Edgar will eventually inherit the small house and estate. Thomas loves literature, especially Shakespeare and also is keenly interested in the 'astral influences.' Unlikely to settle in a career prescribed by his lawyer father, he goes to university to study medicine, even then his lively mind is looking at the future of doctoring.
These are the three characters that set the stage for the book starting with their very unique characters; the reader becomes interested in their fates straight away.
Four years into her arranged marriage, Sonia is living in Deauville, France, with her husband Richard Prendergast. She invites Thomas to stay a while with them as he is in trouble at University though scraping through his MB degree in medicine. A natural enthusiast, Thomas also has an enquiring mind and sees the advantage of learning another language to go with his German tongue. It's here that Thomas and Jacques meet for the first time and fall in 'love' in a meeting of minds over one long, drunken night of exploring their dual ideas.
It's also here that Sonia's marriage starts to crumble. Childless, her husband soon seeks a divorce to gain an heir, but for this one summer Sonia also discovers her passionate nature and is attracted to Jacques, still only twenty then. It's here that the idea of becoming great doctors and opening a famous asylum to treat people with madness is revealed. One day they hope to meet again and realize their dream, in the meantime they will gain valuable experience and correspond by letter.
To pursue their dreams means following the demands of their work and learning, but also curbing natural high spirits, so it's no surprise that the boys, now young men, are fairly inexperienced with the fairer sex. It will be many years in the future before they find love, for now love is an abstract idea.
Thomas follows the road of medicine of the mind by working in a typical English asylum. Thrown in at the deep end all the horrors of a Victorian mind-set will be his for many years to come. Though he will develop his own ideas about the nature of 'mad-doctoring' there was little in the way of sedation at that time and no cure, let alone diagnosis of psychiatric illnesses.
Jacques works in a hospital and treats both the mind and body while dissecting many corpses. He works on his own theories while attending lectures by an eminent professor, Jean-Martin Charcot. (A real life character). By looking at the early pioneers of mental illness the reader can follow the sometimes-confusing ideas of the time, which is why I've allowed so many plots in my review.
The Dream revealed.
Before the turn of the century the dream becomes reality as the three finally open their sanatorium in a place called Carinthia, a spot in what is now Austria but then was part German, part Italy. Rather than put off paying patients looking for a relaxing stay to cure them of their nervous exhaustion, the clinic is called the Scloss Seeblick and soon they have plenty of patients to see to. As well as taking paying guests they also try to treat or ease the symptoms of patients who would otherwise be kept locked-up, a horror that Jacques is determined to get Olivier out of and affect a cure.
As the years pass both Thomas and Jacques develop their theories, which never quite match each other's ideas, but they stay very close, with Jacques marrying Sonia. Thomas also marries a former patient and also manages to rescue several of his old patients from the asylum in England, one who is just blind, not mad. But cracks start to appear in the friendship, as both are constantly overlooked for honors in the field of mad doctoring.
Both travel extensively to California, France, England and Thomas makes a long trip to Africa where he stumbles upon an amazing discovery that could define his theory of mankind's mental development as connected to evolution. But with the country about to be divided by war, will the friends keep their families together and the clinic open? What of their hopes for the future and will they ever see their theories gain any recognition?
I've allowed myself quite a long plot outline in the hope that this will be seen as a book that can be enjoyed by most people. I know it's hard to read a book that seems to be about a subject that would normally sound beyond you, but this is written as a story and while reading the reader gets so drawn into the narrative that the ideas seem almost to come from your own mind. I did find myself thinking that a particular theory had now been proved and was also amazed at the level of understanding I actually could manage. I suppose we live in a society where mental illness is no longer a taboo subject so things like neurological disorders, depression and schizophrenia doesn't sound as strange as it would have even as far back as fifty years, let alone back to the 1800's.
Believe me this isn't a dry or boring book and you don't need qualifications to read it, just an inquiring mind and plenty of time. It's a very long book in hardback at 615 pages with the acknowledgements but I read it in several sessions. When I picked it back up I didn't need to re-read much to catch up where I left off either.
The descriptions of the asylums and the treatment of patients can be daunting at times. I read of one brain operation that made me shudder and I was almost in tears at the treatment of elderly and confused patients. Some nursing homes are terrible today, so imagine an elderly person or a younger with early dementia being cleaned off with a bucket of icy water for soiling themselves? But to balance the awful parts are acts of kindness and real humanity shown where it wouldn't be expected to happen.
This brought the book alive for me and the family story held me enthralled all the way through. I believed completely in these characters and expected them to be based on real people. Sadly although many of the specialists were real the main characters are from the author's wonderful imagination. This I found exceptional, as they were all so different. Many books have the hallmark of the author's style or 'voice'. Characters may sound similar as the writer can only handle so many characters at one time. Sebastian Faulks does this to perfection and his characters were my friends as I read the narrative.
I imagine that many people will think the ideas behind the book heavy, but this isn't so. Although it was six years in writing and was thoroughly researched, I really enjoyed using my mind to follow the ideas and loved it when I discovered I could follow the idea.
Descriptively it's very visual in parts and Faulks uses his knowledge of different countries to show us his places and people. Though there is some of the war at the end of the book, it's not overlong and doesn't get too detailed. Instead the reader is brought into the landscape of the family life, the land around and finally, that powerful landscape of the human mind. It's totally fascinating and the best book I've read in years.
Where I have mentioned the words 'mad doctoring, this is the language of the time.
At the time of writing this can be bought reasonably cheaply in most shops as a hardback or paperback. Mine is a library copy which I've just finished.
I do hope you enjoy my review and haven't found it overlong.
Thanks for indulging me.
©Lisa Fuller. 2011.
Human Traces is probably Sebastian Faulks' most ambitious work to date: a sprawling, epic tale of the quest of three friends (Jacques, Thomas and Sophie) to discover the cause of and cure for mental illnesses in Victorian Britain. Taking in more or less the entire lifetime of the three principle characters, it is a remarkably evocative and deeply interesting book that will fascinate and appal in equal measure.
The fascination arises out of the incredibly intricate plot which Faulks creates, combined with a set of highly believable characters and a strong sense of period. Throw in some fascinating insights into the human mind and you have an interesting, intelligent book. On the other hand, you will find yourself appalled at some of the "treatments" which used to be considered acceptable when dealing with mad people and the lack of care shown to the most vulnerable members of society. It's a fascinating glimpse at how "civilised" people can do all the wrong things for all the right reasons.
Such is the incredible amount of detail and level of characterisation that at times you forget that you are reading a work of fiction. The background information and character back-stories are so detailed it easy to believe that you are reading an actual biography of three pioneering Victorian scientists.
Each of the characters brings something different to the narrative, ensuring that all the elements which are crucial to a balanced plot are present. Jacques is driven by his desire to find a cure for his brother's madness and as such can sometimes appear a little abstract, arrogant and aloof; Thomas is more considered and sensitive, but perhaps lacks the brilliance of Jacques' mind; whilst Sophie (Jacques' wife and Thomas' sister) acts as a stabilising influence on them both, whilst providing much of the heart and emotion.
Together these characters work well, complementing each others' strengths and weaknesses and building a formidable (and believable) partnership that starts to show some signs of strain as the novel progresses. Their struggle with their mission and with each other fascinates the reader and you become gripped by the minutiae of their daily lives.
This is helped by a superb sense of period. Faulks effortlessly recaptures the inquiring spirit of the Victorian age, when men of science and technology confidently expected to solve all of the problems facing human kind within a few years. Although Faulks never goes particularly overboard in his descriptions of places or situations, and makes only vague references to other key discoveries at the time he establishes a genuinely convincing atmosphere. This is not a historical novel as such (it is about the human condition), but it is deeply evocative of life in Victorian Britain.
It's true that Faulk's attention to detail sometimes gets the better of him. Although he never delves too deeply into psychological theories or provide too much scientific information, his desire to educate and inform occasionally becomes overwhelming. This is most noticeable in the form of a number of lectures delivered by or to his characters. There are several of these and they are all written verbatim. The trouble is, unless you are a psychologist or psychiatrist, you will probably not understand most of their content or implications and, if I'm honest, once I became aware that they usually contained nothing of significance plot-wise, I skipped over these sections.
Human Traces is not going to appeal to everyone. It is rather slow paced you need to devote some time to it in order to get the most from it. At over 600 pages (in the hardback edition), it's requires a fairly hefty commitment of time and its subject matter is not always straightforward or easy to understand - despite Faulks' best efforts to explain everything in layman's terms and to eschew complex scientific terminology where possible. Even so, the book can sometimes get a little bogged down, with relatively little happening for long periods.
It's certainly true that (as with so many modern books), there is no real need for the book's prodigious length and it probably could quite easily have lost 50-100 pages without too much difficulty. This is perhaps indicative of Faulks' attention to detail going a little too far. It's a fine line between establishing a strong sense of atmosphere and burying your reader in information and sometimes Faulks strays over that line.
Human Traces is a book that needs you to be willing to invest time and effort in it. If you appreciate the sense of time and place that the stunning attention to detail provides then you will find much to like. If you enjoy fast-paced thrillers which don't require you to think too much, then I'd pass this one by.
© Copyright SWSt 2011
This is the story of Jacques and Thomas, two main characters that are very well described and brought to life by the author Sebastian Faulks, of which I am a huge fan. These two people share a common interest and fascination of the human mind, and when Jacques marries Thomas` sister, their relations grow stronger, as they now have a family connection, and the interest and ideas of medical research and tests, all with the human mind in focus, springs out in these three characters opening and running a medical clinic, and the plot develops from there...
I thoroughly enjoyed this book, finding it entertaining and fascinating all at once, really not wanting it to end, as all books must sooner or later. What I really apriciated about this novel, was that though it`s a fictional story, it contains references and ideas from world history and the ideas that have been spoken about the subject matter of the book, as Thomas and Jacques is attempting to solve the mystery of what causes madness in the human mind. As with all of Faulks` novels, the writing is just effortless in its beauty and descriptions, the characters, their surroundings and the plot comes into life really entertaining and realistic, and I have to say that I really enjoyed reading this novel. For those of you that have read several novels of Sebastian Faulks, I`m sure you would agree that this is not his best novel, but I still found it a very entertaining read and would recommend it to all wanting a mind boggling, fascinating read to enjoy during these months of autumn...
This is a stunning book - not only in the way the story moves forward but in the way it explores early ideas about psychiatry and madness.
Sebastian Faulks has clearly researched thoroughly and intelligently the medical background but the story carries its learning lightly.
At the end of it, I felt as though I'd learned as much as I would have done by reading a non-fiction book but in a much more engaging way.
Set in the 19th century, the main plot concerns two medical practitioners, Jacques Rebiere and Thomas Midwinter, who come together through chance when they are both young men. At first, they barely even share a common language but they discover similarities in their thoughts and ambitions that bring them into a lifelong relationship. That relationship is cemented through work and marriage but shaken by the differences they find as they develop their own medical theories. Many of the theories have been discounted by modern medicine. However, Faulks shows how and why they were considered medically sound options at the time.
The book takes us through Jacques and Thomas's lives as they set up a clinic together and develop individual theories about how to treat people with psychiatric problems. The progress they make in their professional lives is linked to their private lives and we see how the two weave in and out as times passes.
It is slightly disconcerting how the narrative extends and contracts. There are parts where a decade passes in a single page; other times when a speech is given in what feels like real time. I think this is one of the reasons that the book has been criticised by some reviewers; when we are engaged with the characters in a story, we don't necessarily want to be treated to pages and pages of medical argument however well researched it is.
The other weakness of the book is in the lack of depth of the main female characters. There are times when they seem to be little more than devices. However, this is more than made up for by the two main male characters who are completely believable.
This is not a book that can be read quickly or lightly. However the beauty of the prose and the wealth of information make it well worth the effort.
Sebastian Faulks rose to acclaim with the publication of Bird Song and Charlotte Grey. These novels were celebrated for their complex plots and enthralling narrative, as well as the intelligent way in which the author dealt with complicated issues.
In my opinion, Human Traces continues Faulks' tradition of tackling complicated issues, but is less strong at delivering an enthralling story. The novel's central theme is sanity and the author chooses to approach this from the perspective of individuals. Set during the late nineteenth century, in an era when the fledging sciences of psychology and psychiatry were only just beginning to set down roots and when the work of Darwin had invigorated the scientific community, the novel offers a fascinating insight into the evolution of the concept of mental health.
The central characters, Thomas and Jacques meet early in life and are united by a desire to understand the workings of the human mind. In both instances this desire is motivated by deeply personal and very different reasons. Jacques and Thomas become related in law, when Jacques marries Thomas' sister and the bonds of closeness are enhanced. The three characters open a medical clinic and start practising, but eventually various problems and tensions within their clinic cause Thomas and Jacques to abandon their mission of discovering the cause of madness.
This book is a good read. It is rich with literary, historical and cultural references, but its central theme is the science of the mind and the evolution of the discipline. Although the novel provides a fascinating journey for the reader, the story is a little stunted and the work does not provide the same reading experience delivered by earlier works.
I was given this book by my mother who raved about it and said I must read it. Well I did and I couldn't put it down. A beautifully written story about love and madness, it touches deeply. The insights Faulks gives into early psychiatric treatment and attitudes to mental illness are exceptional and are obviously the result of painstakingly thorough research. His ability to describe the illness from the sufferer's point of view is quite brilliant. This really was a book to which I lost many hours and became wholly involved in the characters' lives, travelling from London to Paris, to rural France and on to the Alps. The juxtopositions between the ideals Faulks gives to his characters tear and twist at the narrative until the theme of wrestling human minds carries though from patients to doctors and on into their personal lives.
Beautiful and thoughtful, a very interesting and at times harrowing read.
This amazing novel had me gripped from the very first line! I'm a massive fan of Sebastian Faulks, but had been put of this novel by reviews which said there were passages which were too long winded and scientific. Lesson one - read it yourself and make your own opinion! This is an incredible book, not quite up there with Birdsong (my favourite book of all time - so far) but still amazing.
I can't describe the story better than Fauks himself so:
"The story begins in the 1870s with the lives of two young men: Jacques Rebière, a peasant's son in Brittany, and Thomas Midwinter, a merchant's son in Lincolnshire. Jacques has a naturally scientific turn of mind, in which he is encouraged by the help of the local priest. He is inspired by his desire to find a cure for the mysterious illness of his elder brother Olivier -- who hears voices and is confined by his father to a stable. Jacques studies to become a doctor.
Thomas is forced, reluctantly at first, into medicine by his father and by the friendly concern of his elder sister Sonia. He is at first more interested in literature, and approaches medicine, then psychiatry, from a humane, psychological standpoint.
Jacques and Thomas meet in Deauville, fall intellectually in love and promise to join forces in their life's work: an attempt to understand the mystery of the human mind and in particular the meeting of thought and flesh. Jacques studies under the great neurologist Charcot in Paris; Thomas sees madness close up as a junior doctor in an English county lunatic asylum."
I couldn't go further than this without giving away the entire story, but all I will say is that this brief description does capture the essence of the stroy and its three central characters in Thomas, Jacques and Sonia. The chracterisation is a real strong point in this novel.
Jacques is clearly the most complex of the three mainstays, I had a feeling that I could never quite trust him and this is later revealed to be the right instinct. He is he most mercurial and interesting of the characters- a flawed and fascinating man. Thomas is more of a plodder - I didn't really warm to him until I reached the section where he goes to Africa, and his passion comes through. Sonia is a well drawn Englishwoman of her time - but with a stubborn heart I can relate to, and strong character.
There is a huge cast of supporting characters which are all well done. There is one brief fleeting moment where Faulks gives us an insight into the mind of the psychotic Olivier which is truly breathtaking. It took courage in the conviction of his writing to make the glimpse of Olivier so fleeting and it is a courage which pays off.
What makes this work outstanding is the closeness with which it adheres to the study of the mind - all through reading it I felt as though not much was happening (although it was) in the same way that in lived experience sometimes it feels like not much is happening although clearly when you look back it is. It's a sense which is hard to express, but is captured superbly by Faulks.
There are the long scientific passages which some readers have complained of. However, they were of great interest to me as the advances made in the study and treatment of mental illness are of personal interest. Some of the details in his story are a real testament to the thoroughness of Faulk's research, which can only have been painstaking and fully in-depth.
I can't praise this book enough - it is the skill of Faulks' writing that make sit the epic sweeping study of the human mind that it is. The characters are outstandingly well drawn, and the subject matter handled sensitively and in an enlightening way. It's not fluffy lighthearted bedtime reading (I'd say avoid if Marian keyes et al - urgh - is your thing) but is well worth the investment of your time and energy.
Overall, another masterpiece from Faulks.
English author and former literary editor of The Independent Sebastian Faulks is possibly best known for his intriguing First World War novel `Birdsong` published in 1993.
In 2005 another of his novels was published, this being `Human Traces`.
Yet again Faulks has set his sights on providing readers with another captivating if not complicated tale that is set back in the mid 1800`s.
Human traces centres around the lives of two young men who not only have their own personal issues with life but feel that they can make significant inroads into introducing change in how mental illness is perceived and dealt with.
Jacques Rebiere , the son of a lowly Breton landowner is perturbed by the plight of his older brother Olivier who is now reduced to living the life of an animal due to being plagued by constant `strange voices` and a predisposition to violence.
Thomas Midwinter the son of a prosperous Lincolnshire grain merchant is a young man who is trying to find a purpose in life, Thomas often hears those strange voices too.
His sister Sonia is about to start married life with Mr Prendergast who she has chosen to marry for no other reason but convenience.
Sonia manages to persuade her husband to take a holiday in France and Thomas goes along too.
Deauville is where the two teenagers meet and that chance meeting blossoms into an adoring and long lasting friendship. They train in medicine together, specialising in mental health and eventually pool their resources and open a clinic in Austria where they can offer treatment to the mentally ill, among their patients is Jacques brother Olivier.
Sonia's marriage comes to an end as her husband seems intent on gambling his life away and as she starts to see more of Jacques the inevitable happens.
Thomas finds love in a very mercurial way when a young woman enters their Austrian clinic and complains of chest pains. Jacques and Thomas have completely different theories on her illness which lead to conflict between the friends.
It is clear that Faulks has done a substantial amount of research to be able to write so fluently about such a delicate subject and there are passages in the book which contain in depth medical conversations. But don't let that deter you, there is enough meat in the storyline to make it a good if not long read.
Considering that mental health was at that point in time a very taboo subject Faulks has handled it with great empathy. The mind is a powerful tool, investigating the mind can be both fascinating yet alarming. As the story flows you are invited to take part in dissections of not only animals but the human brain too. Faulks chooses to graphically describe the interior of the mental asylum of the era.
Human Traces will have great appeal to many, on the other hand there will be an element who will recoil at the content. Sebastian Faulks gathers momentum in Human Traces, effortlessly getting into his stride. There are no great lusty affairs or scandalous moments but what the book does incredibly well is to chart the lives of the three main characters over a number of decades..
There are paragraphs that you may choose to skim but the need to know what happens to the three friends and Jacques brother Oliver far outweighs that.
If you are one of the many who are fascinated by the human mind then this may well prove a good read for you. Faulks lets his pen flow well, incorporating the complicated with the intriguing.
If you stumble it won't be for long, you will soon be up and running again.
Human Traces is available on
the Amazon website. The hardback is priced at around £12, but a paperback copy can be purchased for very little.
This is a beautifully written book. As well as that, its depth of scholarship is, in so far as it clearly involved, inter alia, a great deal of research into the causes and symptoms of mental illness, quite remarkable for what is, after all, a fictional work.
The story is about the lives of two men, both who, through their childhood experiences, are drawn and indeed impelled towards a career in medicine, in particular towards psychiatric medicine Their aim, essentially, is to find a cure for madness. This quest takes each of them on a long and, at times, despairing journey.
But bear in mind that this is not a story about a pair of doctors in any modern sense. This is instead about two 'mad doctors', working a long time ago. The practice of psychiatric is in the story, then, undeveloped. So it is that the men have such high hopes for what they might achieve in this new field of human understanding. To be clear, the story is set in the late 19th century and early 20th.
As I say, but I think it's important to stress, at this time, the state of psyhicatric medicine was in its very early stages. Thomas's early experience in the asylum, where thousands of patients are cared for by only a few doctors, in a situation where, for the most part, their treatment goes only so far as to have their most probable illness named at the point at which they enter the asylum for the purposes of segregation amonst the patients, is meant to be found disheartening. But what is inspiring is the earnest and honest way Thomas sets about trying, in spite of it all, to really change the way the whole area is regarded (at that time, it was perhaps thought that management rather than medical treatment was what was best for lunatics).
What the story amounts to is a very convincing portrait of the unravelling of these two lives. The pathos of the the book is astonishing. I was so moved by the final chapter that, for the first time whilst reading a book, I was brought to tears.
I think that the complexity of the novel is what made it so extraordinarily powerful to me. So, if you are one for light or easy reads, I would avoid this novel. If, on the other hand, you are willing to take a less superficial approach I think you will reap large rewards.
I should say that I was continually impressed by the intelligence of this work. It's long (in a good way, it's what allows it to have such breadth), truthful, moving and always insightful. It forces you to consider the fragility of our condition, what it means to be mad, and the ultimate futility of many of our hopes, and maybe even our lives. One thing that struck me was how short a life can look when you see it laid out before you, from the beginning with the optimistic hopes, right to the end, where there is no future to be optimistic about. It makes you think, in the end, about what it means to be human.