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Sebastian Faulks
Human Traces
615 pages
Thomas Midwinter and Jacques Rebiere meet on holiday through Thomas' sister, Sonia, and form a lifelong attachment. In their common desire to ease the suffering of the mad they decide to become doctors and learn as much as they can about the workings of the human brain. As they work, they also strive to understand man and the mystery of self-awareness.

When Thomas and Jacques run a clinic in Austria they begin to diverge on their approach to psychiatry, one tending towards the physiological and the other towards the analytical aspects of the profession. This dichotomy is dramatised when Jacques misdiagnoses a patient as a sexual hysteric; Thomas, however, discovers that her symptoms are simply related to ovarian cysts. Thomas goes on to marry the patient, Kitty, and they have twin daughters. Jacques marries Thomas' sister, Sonia, and they have a son, Daniel, who is killed in the First World War.

Faulks has a great ability to create scenes you know will stay with you forever, such as Thomas entering a Victorian lunatic asylum where he has his first appointment as an assistant medical officer.

"From the inner vestibule, Faverill unlocked a double, iron-barred door which gave into a low-roofed corridor, whose walls and ceilings were tiled in white and whose floor was made of some kind of asphalt — spongy, uneven and disintegrating. There were dim gaslights at intervals of 50 feet or so, though not all were working; a sort of low mist seemed to have gathered from the damp floor, obscuring the way ahead, so that, as far as Thomas could see, the passageway was never-ending."

It is the disintegrating floor, I think, that makes this passage so terrifying. And to be honest, it is scenes such as this that reward us for paying attention during the scientific digressions that permeate this book.

By the end of the novel, Jacques and Thomas feel their lives have been wasted (they have failed to cure madness), but they are reassured by those who love them that they have moved mankind along on the path of human knowledge. At one point, Thomas' supervisor, Faverill, tells him how sometimes he feels like the captain of a stricken vessel. "I have the stars by which to navigate," he says. "Your task — perhaps the most important single one — is to help me never to take my eyes from the stars in the sky."

At 600 pages, Human Traces is a sprawling novel that in parts reminded me of D.H. Lawrence. Faulks, like Lawrence, loves women. Both men revel in romantic and sexual love but they also swoon over mother love: the family hearth, the food and drink and kisses that are bestowed by women on men and children alike.

Another affinity between the two writers is that they are inclined to write immense drifts of prose, exploring and pushing forward, forever trying to capture what cannot be captured, but often achieving, nevertheless, moments of great human tenderness.

Highly Recommended!
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