BookBrowse Reviews Human Traces by Sebastian Faulks

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Human Traces

A Novel

by Sebastian Faulks

Human Traces by Sebastian Faulks X
Human Traces by Sebastian Faulks
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2006, 576 pages
    Aug 2006, 618 pages

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An extraordinary novel that brings to vivid life the epic quest to map the human mind. Historical Fiction

From the book jacket: What is it to be human? This question, as in Birdsong, is at the heart of Human Traces. Set in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, this is an extraordinary novel that brings to vivid life, through the story of the volatile friendship and dedicated careers of two determined men, the epic quest to map the human mind.

Comment: Faulks's latest novel, a 550 page epic that took him four years to write, is not so much a novel about the dawn of modern psychiatry, as a history of psychiatry wrapped around a novel.  It's an incredibly ambitious, intelligent work, sufficiently well researched that I wouldn't be surprised if it becomes required reading for medical students.  In fact, the grasp that Faulks has for his material is sometimes quite overwhelming, to the point that I must admit to skipping the occasional page here and there when one or another of his characters expounded on the latest theory of the day in particular depth!

It's impossible to provide an adequate synopsis of this extraordinary book in a few lines but in short, Thomas Midwinter, an Englishman, and his close friend Jacques Rebière, meet by chance in 1880 and immediately recognize a kindred spirit in the other - both are training to become doctors at a time when mental illness is beginning to be seen not as an affliction but as a disease that can be cured, and both are determined to be at the forefront of medical discovery.  Thomas's path takes him to a hellish English asylum, while Jacques becomes enamored of the theories put forward by the French neurologist Jean Charcot (mirroring Freud, who was a great admirer of Charcot).  Eventually they open a clinic together in an old schloss (chateau/castle) on the Austro/Slovenian border with the help of Thomas's sister, Sonia, with the single-minded purpose of curing mental illness, but conflict develops when their theories start to diverge.  While the central characters obsessively work to uncover the secrets of the human brain, they themselves, run the gamut of  human emotions, stepping into the edge of madness.  

Did you know?  Key to Human Traces is the theme of hearing voices, now considered a classic sign of schizophrenia, but in Human Traces it is posited as having a more central place in human evolution.  In an interview last year, Faulks said, "I think there's no doubt that the hearing of voices is much more common than we generally acknowledge, and I don't think it's necessarily a sign of being mad,"  He tells of an incident he experienced shortly after his second child was born, when he heard his wife's voice screaming for him but when he went upstairs there was nobody there.  In his acknowledgements, he references The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (1977), "a cult classic", in which the author, Julian Jaynes, suggests that hearing voices was once commonplace and that the loss of the ability to hear coincided with the generation of modern human consciousness.

This review is from the October 5, 2006 issue of BookBrowse Recommends. Click here to go to this issue.

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