by Sebastian Faulks
One of the themes of HUMAN TRACES is about how we lock up the least of our lunatics, even the mildly eccentric, while seriously dangerous egomaniacs remain at liberty, free to avail themselves of armies, police forces and WMDs and become a danger to their neighbours. With terrible simplicity, Faulks explains in HUMAN TRACES that we are still in the process of evolution. Our brains have come far from the primitive and we have learned some extremely clever tricks, but we are still childish, and sometimes credulous: useless bits of our prehistoric brain lingers on in wait to betray us, while the most recently developed part is the most vulnerable to mental illness. He thinks that the best thing we can do about that is to treat our locked-up lunatics with medicine, kindness and respect; listening to them may help us to learn what triggers the afflictions that affect the human brain.
HUMAN TRACES is set in the late 19th century, perhaps to explain to us how far we have come, how we travelled and where we arrived. The veil between lunacy and sanity is as thin as a cigarette paper, according to Faulks.
HUMAN TRACES is about two boys, Jacques and Thomas, from widely different backgrounds, who discover while on holiday at Deauville with their families, that they share an intense though disparate fascination for the then infancy of what was to become the respectable science of psychiatry. Such is the haphazardness of life. They become lifelong friends, colleagues and brothers-in-law, yet they discover that they still have to tread with care in respect of one another’s sensibilities, even to the end of their professional lives. A loving and benign sister is central to the plot, as are Katherina, Daisy and Mary, who are ex-patients. In fact there is quite a large cast of women, treated kindly by Faulks.
The story is about the lifelong search for understanding of the mind, recognition of their work, and, of course, money. It takes them from a rural French village and an English country house to the high sophistication of Vienna and Paris, with stops at California and the plains of Africa. It is a challenging and thoughtful read, quite long, but very rewarding. Their search takes them through the advanced study of “madness”, through turn-of -the-century medicine, pathology, neurology and hysteria. At one point they are compelled to a tragic revision of all they thought they knew, and their understanding of one another. The pages of this book are so evocative of place and time, and every character portrait is so well-painted, that the reader thinks himself to be walking the beach at Saint Agnes, playing tennis at Torrington, diagnosing and prescribing at the schloss, or walking the foul wards of the Salpetriere Hospital in Paris.
Of course there is name-dropping. A study of mental illness of the period must include Pinel, Charcot and many more. But this is not a historical novel: it is a brilliant tale of pure fiction, through and through. There is love, loyalty, betrayal, compromise - all the stuff of the human condition. It is Sebastian Faulks at his most scholarly and discerning, and perhaps his most ambitious: certainly he is unashamedly philosophical. In its grandeur and simplicity HUMAN TRACES calls to mind the best of the 19th century novels, but it is timely and relevant for us in our present day predicament.