Human Traces, by Sebastian Faulks

I picked up this book because I’ve enjoyed other books by this author, but perhaps that says more about me than about his writing. His World War I trilogy fell into my hands just as I was reading everything I could find—poetry, history, memoirs—about that time. And I came across The Fatal Englishman the year that my bedside table was stacked with books about Antarctica: Cherry-Garrard’s memoir, Scott’s journals.

Human Traces was more of a challenge. It is the story of two men, Jacques Rebiere and Thomas Midwinter who decide to devote their lives to the study of mental illness in the hopes of understanding and curing the diseases afflicting Jacques’s brother and others. We first meet the two men in 1876 when they are 16, and follow their story, and the entwined stories of their wives, children, patients, and co-workers for the next 45 years, through the ambitions and dreams of youth, the disappointments and shortcomings of midlife, the reflections and griefs of age.

Faulks writes well. He made me care about his characters and what happened to them even though I have little interest in the Victorian period or in the early days of psychology. He writes well enough to keep me reading no matter how annoyed I get. And I did get very annoyed with this book.

For one thing, it seemed just too long. Did we really need the full text of speeches and letters, pages and pages quoting a scientific paper, long lectures about the latest discovery? It seemed like padding to me, as I waded through it, and I kept wishing he would get on with the story. Yet I kept reading.

For another thing, the story, the plot itself, was a bit thin. Every time a conflict threatens to emerge—such as when Thomas’s sister falls in love with Jacques and decides to marry him against her parents’ wishes—the potential unpleasantness falls apart like mist, and everyone is happy after all. The experimental cable car works without a hitch; a wealthy sponsor appears when the men need money for their sanatorium; an affair is forgiven with the husband not even realising the wife knows about it.

Gradually, however, it became clear that the plot was not really about such things as money and marriage. Instead, it was about ideas: the conflict between ideas and theories of how the human mind works, how it malfunctions, how to fix it. The late 19th century was the time, as well, of Darwin and the conflict between ideas of science and religion, when people debated just what separated humans from apes.

And so, by the end of the book, I was grateful for every lecture, every scientific paper, every tedious debate. Because, by the time I turned the last page, I did feel that I had learned something new about what it means to be a human being.

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