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Human Traces - Sebastian Faulks
Member Name: SWSt
Human Traces - Sebastian Faulks
Advantages: A fascinating and surprisingly readable story of human madness
Disadvantages: Attention to detail can be overwhelming at times
Human Traces is probably Sebastian Faulks' most ambitious work to date: a sprawling, epic tale of the quest of three friends (Jacques, Thomas and Sophie) to discover the cause of and cure for mental illnesses in Victorian Britain. Taking in more or less the entire lifetime of the three principle characters, it is a remarkably evocative and deeply interesting book that will fascinate and appal in equal measure.
The fascination arises out of the incredibly intricate plot which Faulks creates, combined with a set of highly believable characters and a strong sense of period. Throw in some fascinating insights into the human mind and you have an interesting, intelligent book. On the other hand, you will find yourself appalled at some of the "treatments" which used to be considered acceptable when dealing with mad people and the lack of care shown to the most vulnerable members of society. It's a fascinating glimpse at how "civilised" people can do all the wrong things for all the right reasons.
Such is the incredible amount of detail and level of characterisation that at times you forget that you are reading a work of fiction. The background information and character back-stories are so detailed it easy to believe that you are reading an actual biography of three pioneering Victorian scientists.
Each of the characters brings something different to the narrative, ensuring that all the elements which are crucial to a balanced plot are present. Jacques is driven by his desire to find a cure for his brother's madness and as such can sometimes appear a little abstract, arrogant and aloof; Thomas is more considered and sensitive, but perhaps lacks the brilliance of Jacques' mind; whilst Sophie (Jacques' wife and Thomas' sister) acts as a stabilising influence on them both, whilst providing much of the heart and emotion.
Together these characters work well, complementing each others' strengths and weaknesses and building a formidable (and believable) partnership that starts to show some signs of strain as the novel progresses. Their struggle with their mission and with each other fascinates the reader and you become gripped by the minutiae of their daily lives.
This is helped by a superb sense of period. Faulks effortlessly recaptures the inquiring spirit of the Victorian age, when men of science and technology confidently expected to solve all of the problems facing human kind within a few years. Although Faulks never goes particularly overboard in his descriptions of places or situations, and makes only vague references to other key discoveries at the time he establishes a genuinely convincing atmosphere. This is not a historical novel as such (it is about the human condition), but it is deeply evocative of life in Victorian Britain.
It's true that Faulk's attention to detail sometimes gets the better of him. Although he never delves too deeply into psychological theories or provide too much scientific information, his desire to educate and inform occasionally becomes overwhelming. This is most noticeable in the form of a number of lectures delivered by or to his characters. There are several of these and they are all written verbatim. The trouble is, unless you are a psychologist or psychiatrist, you will probably not understand most of their content or implications and, if I'm honest, once I became aware that they usually contained nothing of significance plot-wise, I skipped over these sections.
Human Traces is not going to appeal to everyone. It is rather slow paced you need to devote some time to it in order to get the most from it. At over 600 pages (in the hardback edition), it's requires a fairly hefty commitment of time and its subject matter is not always straightforward or easy to understand - despite Faulks' best efforts to explain everything in layman's terms and to eschew complex scientific terminology where possible. Even so, the book can sometimes get a little bogged down, with relatively little happening for long periods.
It's certainly true that (as with so many modern books), there is no real need for the book's prodigious length and it probably could quite easily have lost 50-100 pages without too much difficulty. This is perhaps indicative of Faulks' attention to detail going a little too far. It's a fine line between establishing a strong sense of atmosphere and burying your reader in information and sometimes Faulks strays over that line.
Human Traces is a book that needs you to be willing to invest time and effort in it. If you appreciate the sense of time and place that the stunning attention to detail provides then you will find much to like. If you enjoy fast-paced thrillers which don't require you to think too much, then I'd pass this one by.
© Copyright SWSt 2011
Summary: Arguably Faulks' most ambitious book is an excellent read - if you have time and patience