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Not a beguiling comedy of manners
Human Traces - Sebastian Faulks
Member Name: enchantingchap
Human Traces - Sebastian Faulks
Date: 16/07/07, updated on 16/07/07 (159 review reads)
Advantages: Well-written, powerful and imaginative
Disadvantages: For some, it might be slightly too long
This is a beautifully written book. As well as that, its depth of scholarship is, in so far as it clearly involved, inter alia, a great deal of research into the causes and symptoms of mental illness, quite remarkable for what is, after all, a fictional work.
The story is about the lives of two men, both who, through their childhood experiences, are drawn and indeed impelled towards a career in medicine, in particular towards psychiatric medicine Their aim, essentially, is to find a cure for madness. This quest takes each of them on a long and, at times, despairing journey.
But bear in mind that this is not a story about a pair of doctors in any modern sense. This is instead about two 'mad doctors', working a long time ago. The practice of psychiatric is in the story, then, undeveloped. So it is that the men have such high hopes for what they might achieve in this new field of human understanding. To be clear, the story is set in the late 19th century and early 20th.
As I say, but I think it's important to stress, at this time, the state of psyhicatric medicine was in its very early stages. Thomas's early experience in the asylum, where thousands of patients are cared for by only a few doctors, in a situation where, for the most part, their treatment goes only so far as to have their most probable illness named at the point at which they enter the asylum for the purposes of segregation amonst the patients, is meant to be found disheartening. But what is inspiring is the earnest and honest way Thomas sets about trying, in spite of it all, to really change the way the whole area is regarded (at that time, it was perhaps thought that management rather than medical treatment was what was best for lunatics).
What the story amounts to is a very convincing portrait of the unravelling of these two lives. The pathos of the the book is astonishing. I was so moved by the final chapter that, for the first time whilst reading a book, I was brought to tears.
I think that the complexity of the novel is what made it so extraordinarily powerful to me. So, if you are one for light or easy reads, I would avoid this novel. If, on the other hand, you are willing to take a less superficial approach I think you will reap large rewards.
I should say that I was continually impressed by the intelligence of this work. It's long (in a good way, it's what allows it to have such breadth), truthful, moving and always insightful. It forces you to consider the fragility of our condition, what it means to be mad, and the ultimate futility of many of our hopes, and maybe even our lives. One thing that struck me was how short a life can look when you see it laid out before you, from the beginning with the optimistic hopes, right to the end, where there is no future to be optimistic about. It makes you think, in the end, about what it means to be human.
Summary: Something really special; a book imbued with a rare understanding of the human spirit