Tuesday, 3 June 2008

Human Traces

I have long been a Sebastian Faulks fan. When I was fifteen I gave my English teacher ‘Birdsong’ and then thought I would read it myself. I remember being horrified that I’d given her a book with sex(!) in it, but for myself I was hooked from the beginning by the powerful writing and the emotive way Faulks conjured up the First World War and the way in which people, then and now, dealt with their feelings for the catastrophe. I quickly swallowed up ‘The Girl at the Lion D’or’ and ‘Charlotte Grey’ too.

I wrote my A level coursework on Birdsong, comparing it with All quiet on the western front and enjoyed it again on a different level.

Since then I have been preoccupied by reading what I was told to read by my University professors, and by the time ‘Human Traces’ came out I was chomping at the bit to read it. Dad read it, proclaimed it wonderful and begged me to read it right then and there so we could talk about it.

The problem was I was deeply immersed in my Masters dissertation, and could read nothing that wasn’t to do with Joyce Grenfell and Christian Science. I did start it on the train to Norwich for a meeting with my supervisor, but for a small part of the journey, a woman who had very clearly lost a link or two in her brain was sat next to me, and the parallel between fiction and real life was too much for me to be able to bear reading the book.

So, it wasn’t until February this year that I finally picked it up and started to read.

Four years had served to make me forget the lucidity of Faulks’ style. He writes of complex issues, but we swim through the words with such ease that the complexity does not seem a chore.

The general premise of ‘Human Traces’ is this: that madness is an essential human characteristic and therefore is inherent in all of us.

It sounds simple, but the scope Faulks uses to explore this idea is so wide that we quickly realise that it is not something to be taken lightly. Normally content to span a few years for his plot, with ‘Human Traces’ Faulks turns epic, starting in the 1870s and treading the decades of discovery and failure way past the First World War.

I found myself utterly immersed, I couldn’t put it down. A book that took the author five years to write, I devoured in five days, not talking to anyone, spending every spare minute of the day reading this wonderfully powerful and beautifully written novel. It will come as no surprise that I was utterly exhausted once finished, and couldn’t settle to any book after the grandeur of the writing.

His characters are fallible – more so because the science they devote their lives to is imperfect and prone just as much to false readings as true ones. What starts as a Utopian dream of curing the mentally ill quickly becomes a stumbling block for the two doctors who start out so close in their thinking, but allow their own motives to push them further apart. I don’t want to spoil the ending, but I shall say merely this: I rarely cry when I’m reading, but the events that serve to reconcile the two main characters is one of the most moving passages I’ve ever read.

Five years in the writing, five days in the reading – this novel is one of the best I’ve ever read, and I think it’s Faulks’ masterpiece. Everyone should read it.

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