Newest Review: ... them as he is in trouble at University though scraping through his MB degree in medicine. A natural enthusiast, Thomas also has an enquirin... more
Maps of the Mind.
Human Traces - Sebastian Faulks
Member Name: QueenElf
Human Traces - Sebastian Faulks
Advantages: Absolutely fascinating story. Wonderful theme and characters.
Disadvantages: May be seen as interlectual but isn't.
The main characters of the story are determined in the late 1800's with Jacques Rebière, a son of a peasant farmer with aspirations to be more than his birthright. Jacques himself is clever and although he has to work for his father from an early age, the Curé aids him in his pursuit of science and the human mind. He has an older brother, Olivier, who became ill just after puberty and is now classed as an idiot who has to live in the barn because of his behavior. After a shocking episode in which Olivier trashes Jacques work, he is forced to be chained up and Jacques life's work begins to bring a cure about for his 'mad' brother.
In a quiet English village, Torrington House near Lincoln is home to the Midwinter family, a shabby genteel family who try to live within their means. Sonia, the elder sister is forced into a loveless marriage at 18 and manages to influence her younger brother Thomas, whose dreamy ways are not suited to any of a younger son's career choices. The older son, Edgar will eventually inherit the small house and estate. Thomas loves literature, especially Shakespeare and also is keenly interested in the 'astral influences.' Unlikely to settle in a career prescribed by his lawyer father, he goes to university to study medicine, even then his lively mind is looking at the future of doctoring.
These are the three characters that set the stage for the book starting with their very unique characters; the reader becomes interested in their fates straight away.
Four years into her arranged marriage, Sonia is living in Deauville, France, with her husband Richard Prendergast. She invites Thomas to stay a while with them as he is in trouble at University though scraping through his MB degree in medicine. A natural enthusiast, Thomas also has an enquiring mind and sees the advantage of learning another language to go with his German tongue. It's here that Thomas and Jacques meet for the first time and fall in 'love' in a meeting of minds over one long, drunken night of exploring their dual ideas.
It's also here that Sonia's marriage starts to crumble. Childless, her husband soon seeks a divorce to gain an heir, but for this one summer Sonia also discovers her passionate nature and is attracted to Jacques, still only twenty then. It's here that the idea of becoming great doctors and opening a famous asylum to treat people with madness is revealed. One day they hope to meet again and realize their dream, in the meantime they will gain valuable experience and correspond by letter.
To pursue their dreams means following the demands of their work and learning, but also curbing natural high spirits, so it's no surprise that the boys, now young men, are fairly inexperienced with the fairer sex. It will be many years in the future before they find love, for now love is an abstract idea.
Thomas follows the road of medicine of the mind by working in a typical English asylum. Thrown in at the deep end all the horrors of a Victorian mind-set will be his for many years to come. Though he will develop his own ideas about the nature of 'mad-doctoring' there was little in the way of sedation at that time and no cure, let alone diagnosis of psychiatric illnesses.
Jacques works in a hospital and treats both the mind and body while dissecting many corpses. He works on his own theories while attending lectures by an eminent professor, Jean-Martin Charcot. (A real life character). By looking at the early pioneers of mental illness the reader can follow the sometimes-confusing ideas of the time, which is why I've allowed so many plots in my review.
The Dream revealed.
Before the turn of the century the dream becomes reality as the three finally open their sanatorium in a place called Carinthia, a spot in what is now Austria but then was part German, part Italy. Rather than put off paying patients looking for a relaxing stay to cure them of their nervous exhaustion, the clinic is called the Scloss Seeblick and soon they have plenty of patients to see to. As well as taking paying guests they also try to treat or ease the symptoms of patients who would otherwise be kept locked-up, a horror that Jacques is determined to get Olivier out of and affect a cure.
As the years pass both Thomas and Jacques develop their theories, which never quite match each other's ideas, but they stay very close, with Jacques marrying Sonia. Thomas also marries a former patient and also manages to rescue several of his old patients from the asylum in England, one who is just blind, not mad. But cracks start to appear in the friendship, as both are constantly overlooked for honors in the field of mad doctoring.
Both travel extensively to California, France, England and Thomas makes a long trip to Africa where he stumbles upon an amazing discovery that could define his theory of mankind's mental development as connected to evolution. But with the country about to be divided by war, will the friends keep their families together and the clinic open? What of their hopes for the future and will they ever see their theories gain any recognition?
I've allowed myself quite a long plot outline in the hope that this will be seen as a book that can be enjoyed by most people. I know it's hard to read a book that seems to be about a subject that would normally sound beyond you, but this is written as a story and while reading the reader gets so drawn into the narrative that the ideas seem almost to come from your own mind. I did find myself thinking that a particular theory had now been proved and was also amazed at the level of understanding I actually could manage. I suppose we live in a society where mental illness is no longer a taboo subject so things like neurological disorders, depression and schizophrenia doesn't sound as strange as it would have even as far back as fifty years, let alone back to the 1800's.
Believe me this isn't a dry or boring book and you don't need qualifications to read it, just an inquiring mind and plenty of time. It's a very long book in hardback at 615 pages with the acknowledgements but I read it in several sessions. When I picked it back up I didn't need to re-read much to catch up where I left off either.
The descriptions of the asylums and the treatment of patients can be daunting at times. I read of one brain operation that made me shudder and I was almost in tears at the treatment of elderly and confused patients. Some nursing homes are terrible today, so imagine an elderly person or a younger with early dementia being cleaned off with a bucket of icy water for soiling themselves? But to balance the awful parts are acts of kindness and real humanity shown where it wouldn't be expected to happen.
This brought the book alive for me and the family story held me enthralled all the way through. I believed completely in these characters and expected them to be based on real people. Sadly although many of the specialists were real the main characters are from the author's wonderful imagination. This I found exceptional, as they were all so different. Many books have the hallmark of the author's style or 'voice'. Characters may sound similar as the writer can only handle so many characters at one time. Sebastian Faulks does this to perfection and his characters were my friends as I read the narrative.
I imagine that many people will think the ideas behind the book heavy, but this isn't so. Although it was six years in writing and was thoroughly researched, I really enjoyed using my mind to follow the ideas and loved it when I discovered I could follow the idea.
Descriptively it's very visual in parts and Faulks uses his knowledge of different countries to show us his places and people. Though there is some of the war at the end of the book, it's not overlong and doesn't get too detailed. Instead the reader is brought into the landscape of the family life, the land around and finally, that powerful landscape of the human mind. It's totally fascinating and the best book I've read in years.
Where I have mentioned the words 'mad doctoring, this is the language of the time.
At the time of writing this can be bought reasonably cheaply in most shops as a hardback or paperback. Mine is a library copy which I've just finished.
I do hope you enjoy my review and haven't found it overlong.
Thanks for indulging me.
©Lisa Fuller. 2011.
Summary: An Epic journey of the mind.