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Tillabooks: Will's Book Blog

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Human Traces by Sebastian Faulks

Human Traces by Sebastian Faulks. New York, Random House, 2005. ISBN: 0-375-50226-2

The author refers to this as “a work of historical fiction.” It is important to point out, however, that it is more scientific history than political or even social history that is the focus. And specifically, the history of psychiatry, and the understanding of mental illness and treatment of it. An unusual yet fascinating topic for a work of fiction.

The book's main characters are a young Englishman, Thomas, on his way to becoming a doctor, and his sister, Sonia, and a young Frenchman, Jacques, with a similar ambition, who, through a chance meeting, becomes a bosom friend. The two agree that after their medical training and initial experience, they will set up a sanatorium style clinic together, treating the mentally ill. This they eventually do, with Jacques eventually marrying Sonia.

This 557-page tome tells their story in all its intimate details, over the span of their lifetimes, beginning in the late 19th century, and ending just after World War I. Both Thomas and Jacques pursue their private dreams of somehow finding a cure for at least certain types of insanity, but both are ultimately disappointed. Along the way, we encounter much of the early thinking about mental illness. Jacques' own brother, you see, was what would nowadays most likely be diagnosed as schizophrenic.

Thomas develops a fascinating theory that in primitive humanity, all heard voices in their heads. The loss of this facility may be part of the evolution of the human brain, but one which causes other problems, some of which may be intimately involved with religion. Here's a sample passage:

At the beginning of the Bible, everyone—Noah, Abraham, Moses—seemed to hear God's voice externally; then it was heard only by a minority, who became priests; then the gift became rarer, so the infant Samuel could hear but the old priest Eli could not; and then by the time of the New Testament, Christ alone—and perhaps Paul—could hear voices.

Likewise in the Iliad the heroes received their instructions direct from their many deities, from their individual and distinct voices; in the Odyssey, centuries later, the talking gods were in retreat: feeble, bickering and mocked by humans now capable of self-willed action.

That is not what the book is about, but just a sample of the kinds of thought which permeate it. Most of the book is about the characters, their actions, their interrelationships, all tied together with their life work, trying to care for and heal those with mental illnesses.

A truly fascinating story, but probably not for everyone. This book should appeal to those who enjoy dense, lengthy stories with real believable characters, set in a scientific milieu from the past century and the one before it. Definitely recommended, if you have the patience and interest.

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