Sebastian Faulks is perhaps one of the most recognizable British authors of literary fiction today, and this seventh novel was critically acclaimed in 2005, after several years’ research. The novel opens in the 1870s, told initially from the perspective of Jacques, a teenage boy living in impoverished conditions on a farm near the Brittany coast, and we soon learn of the mentally ill older brother Olivier, grimly tethered permanently to the wall in the barn.
Then the story switches to a merchant’s family in rural Lincolnshire, and Sonia and her younger brother, Thomas. The two strands soon converge, and Thomas and Jacques make a pact to work together to study and cure mental illness at some point in the distant future. We follow Thomas in graphic detail through his first employment in a Dickensian lunatic asylum, and sit open-mouthed with Jacques at the Salpêtrière in Paris as he attends lectures about "hysterical women" under Charcot (a real person). Eventually the pair, with Sonia, excitedly establish their hospital or institution in Austrian Carinthia, retrieve Olivier from Brittany, and this extraordinary story develops from there.
As we could guess, the friends do not succeed in curing mental illness, but we learn a great deal about the scientific theories and neurological practices of those times. There are some extended lectures and letters, plus subsidiary adventures in California and East Africa. The story unfolds into the early decades of the twentieth century, with Sonia emerging as perhaps the most important character, mediating the changing relationship between Thomas and Jacques.
Human Traces is a very long and detailed book, and only a few of our Book Club had waded through to the end by the time of our meeting, but many others carried on afterwards, not from a sense of duty, but intrigued by the story. Some found certain scenes harrowing, not a great surprise given the subject matter, but fortunately these episodes do not dominate the book. We all learned a lot about the interaction of the mind and the body, the study of the brain in post-mortem and other conditions, and the way medical science has developed it's theories on mental disturbance, especially schizophrenia and hysteria. Freud is not mentioned explicitly, but indirectly his ideas seem to be mocked.
The main problems for our readers were the vast size of the canvas, the diversity of the theories and the large number of subsidiary characters. Faulks' language and style was well regarded; the sheer scale of his whole project and detailed research was impressive to all of us. One member summed it up well by saying it was "all a bit overwhelming" but it is a book none of us are ever likely to forget.
Average scores were only just over the midpoint, with no high marks from anybody, so in the end the length and detail of the book overcame our admiration for its ambitious scope and brilliant execution. If the subject matter vaguely you, and you have lots of spare time, this could be one of the most memorable reads of a lifetime. But a gentle summer read on the beach it is not.