Sebastian Faulks: Human Traces
By one of those interesting coincidences that make reading so enjoyable, I happened to read this book straight after reading A L Kennedy‘s Paradise. And what a comparison! Paradise is not Kennedy’s best book but it is still a very good book. More importantly, it is immeasurably superior to this book to an extent that is almost embarrassing. Kennedy’s story is a fairly straightforward account of an alcoholic woman and how she muddles through her alcoholic life, all the while looking for something, which Kennedy ironically calls paradise but is really a modus operandi with a bit of love thrown in. What Kennedy does achieve, and achieves superbly, is to get under the skin of Hannah, her alcoholic, and give us a very original account of this alcoholic woman. Plot is secondary (though not absent). Kennedy is much more interested in the soul of her creation.
Faulks, however, gives us a rambling and not uninteresting plot about the struggles of late nineteenth/early twentieth century psychiatry and neurology. He has clearly done his research on the history, the debates and specific cases. He brings in historical characters (e.g. Jean-Martin Charcot). He is clearly enthusiastic about his topic. But it has all the passion and imagination of a clinical case-book. Where Kennedy gets beneath the skin, Faulks writes entirely on the surface, the way, for example, a writer of James Bond novels might write. The characters are dull and pedestrian, the plot, while historically interesting, is thoroughly predictable and the interesting points in the development of psychiatric and neurological techniques, the difference between psychological and physical causes of such illnesses and the very important recognition that people suffering from such diseases should not be treated as outcasts, are all explicated not as literature but all too often as extracts from case-books, lectures or articles. If Faulks wanted to write the history of psychiatry and neurology, why didn’t he just do that? Many many writers have written on this topic, particularly in the nineteenth century (the Brontës are prime examples). In most cases, while they may have been stereotyping and totally unscientific, they have nevertheless taken a standard theme and made a fascinating story out of it. Faulks manages to take a standard theme, with an interesting twist (are neurological disorders physical or psychological in origin?) and make it pedestrian.
Of course, all of this is very unfair on poor Faulks. Had I not read the Kennedy novel just before, I would probably have said that this is a well-written, interesting story but lacking that certain je ne sais quoi that makes a novel special. It is perhaps a good novel (it is very long) for a plane flight from Los Angeles to Auckland or from Frankfurt to Mumbai, as it is not too taxing but generally well-written. And I could have read any number of other novels after reading the Kennedy and come to a similar conclusion. But I did not.
For those who are not completely put off, here is a very brief idea of what it is about. It tells the story of two men born in 1860. Thomas Midwinter comes from a fairly well-off family. He has a devoted sister, Sonia, who is married off to a young man with prospects who turns out to be standard nineteenth century novel rogue and wastrel. At Sonia’s suggestion he goes into medicine and becomes interested in mental illness and neurological disorders. He meets Jacques Rebière, a Breton from a decidedly less well-off background. Jacques is also interested in medicine and mental illness and neurological disorders, not least because of his brother, Olivier, who has become clinically insane. Thomas and Jacques agree to finish their studies and set up a clinic together (which is about as unconvincing as the fact that Thomas manages to learn fluent French overnight!) The rest is as predictable as the early part. Sonia divorces her wastrel and marries, yes, Jacques. Clinic is set up. A few problems but not too many. Diversions to the USA, Africa and World War I. Disagreements over physical/psychological origin of neurological disorders. Cutesey ghosty ending. Some people may well enjoy it.
First published 2005 by Hutchinson