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Human Traces by Sebastian Faulks

Human Traces (original 2005; edition 2006)

by Sebastian Faulks

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Title:Human Traces
Authors:Sebastian Faulks
Info:Vintage (2006), Edition: New Ed, Paperback, 618 pages
Collections:Your library, To read
Tags:Fiction, Mooched

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Human Traces by Sebastian Faulks (2005)

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Showing 1-5 of 23 (next | show all)
This isn't a book you can dip in and out of, it requires some serious attention. But that's not to say it doesn't reward you for spending the time on it. There are passages that are a delight to read, capturing perfectly the emotional peaks and troughs of being human. The text is somewhat technical, with lots of discussion of psychology, physiology, neurology and the like. A glossary would have helped, I feel. There is something of that nature, but it appears at about page 175, by which time you've already got a little confused.

Tells the story of a lifetime of effort with the aspiration to cure the insane. Two young men meet in France in 1870s, from very different backgrounds and groundings, but both unite in their goal. Jaques is from a French peasant family and is inspired by science - and trying to bring his brother back from his own personal hell. Thomas is from a well to do English family and has gravitated to trying to discover the secrets of madness from discovering the depictions of madness in literature. And there you have the two opposing approaches to finding the soul - is it a physical thing, or a thing of poetry and something too will-o-the-wisp to pin down.

The book follows these two boys from their youth to their old age as they try, from different points and with differing degrees of success, to cure the insane. It's an impossible task, and the book ends with one of them succumbing to one of the diseases they've been involved in looking for. There are touches of brilliance, Jaques declaring his love makes the heart leap with pleasure, the case of Kitty has you fearing for their future, while one of them describing his imminent dementia was heart breaking. It was shortly followed by what I'd call a "Wonderful Life" scenario - while they may not have achieved what they set out to do, they haven't found a cure for madness, they have achieved something that is overlooked, but vitally important - they've made the lives of many people better - and that can't be considered insignificant.

It is a bit long and the technical language can get pretty dense, but it is worth persisting with. The idea of what is it that makes us human is a question that we still don't have an answer and the surmise that madness is the evolutionary accompaniment of madness is an attractive one (for those that don't fall unlucky in the genetic lottery). This certainly makes you think, not only about the big questions of what it is to be human, but about the emotions that each human undergoes through a lifetime. There is something very beautiful in this book. ( )
1 vote Helenliz | Apr 1, 2013 |
Interesting book in terms of historical references to mental illness, and how it was treated. However, some parts seemed to be glossed over - although having said that it's a big book and if parts of it hadn't been glossed over it would have been mammoth!

The characters were well written. I particularly enjoyed the first half of the book, talking about life in England and the descriptions of the mental hospitals of the time. ( )
  Fluffyblue | Sep 16, 2012 |
loved it, one of the best books I have read in a long time. ( )
  bhowell | Aug 10, 2012 |
A difficult book to rate and review. Parts of it were sublime; the rest tedious and didactic. If it had been 250 pages shorter it would have been outstanding. As it stands, the beginning (full of hope) and the end (full of despair) were worth the read. I cried twice in this book: at the beauty of the opening pages and the pathos of the closing pages. It's a pity that the middle was such heavy going.

Obviously authors who've already made their name are allowed to ignore basic writing rules such as "show, don't tell". That's fine when it works but in this book, Faulks appears to take the easy way out and at times his "telling" ran into 22 consecutive pages with the occasional token "Thomas stood up" or "Thomas said" to break the monotony. (What was his editor thinking in letting these sections stand?!!?)

In addition, there were a few plot hooks that didn't lead anywhere. For example, the mysterious archivist in the lunatic asylum. The end hook of chapter VII was the dramatic announcement "My name, too, you see, is Midwinter". I was left wondering throughout the remaining 400 pages what the dramatic connection was to Dr Thomas Midwinter. But as this was neither concluded nor developed, I was frustrated. So why the emphasis?

Sometimes pretentious in language;at other times lecturing in tone, this book was still inhabited by marvellous characterisations throughout. Ultimately, it was a brave attempt at fictionalising a philosophy on what it is to be human that didn't quite work. The conclusion that the book brings one to is that to be human is to despair; hope is not an option because in the greater scheme of the universe to be human is to be insignificant. I prefer books that offer a less nihilistic view of our human experience. ( )
1 vote JudyCroome | Aug 28, 2011 |
In my opinion, Sebastian Faulks is right up there with the best of our writers. He studied English at Cambridge. He worked as a features writer for The Telegraph papers before becoming Deputy Editor of The Independant on Sunday. This is the third novel of his I have read. Birdsong was excellent and Charlotte Gray very good, but for me Human Traces is superior.

Is the writing any better in this novel? Mr Faulks writes beautifully throughout all three of these books.

Is it the subject matter? There may possibly a link, you may recall I found Abraham Verghese's Cutting for Stone excellent which also has a strong medical theme. Medicine interests me but not to go into the profession, I'm far too squeamish but I enjoy the science. I like psychology and again have an interest in mental health, having read Edward de Bono, R D Laing and others in my teens and later Oliver Sachs - The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat for book group. It is interesting how the mind works and what can go wrong, the delicate line we tread.

Is it the storyline? Most definitely! Right from the start where we are in France with the sixteen year old Jacques whose Mother died in childbirth, brought up mainly by his aunt and grandmother. His father busy working and his sick, mistreated, older brother for whom Jacques channels his ambitions. In England the young Thomas, at the same age, not taken particularly seriously by his father as the youngest of three children. It is his dear sister Sonia who sees how bright Thomas is and takes an interest in him, guiding him to follow his instincts and interests. When these two young men meet they form a strong bond which maintains their lasting friendship through life. This novel is not just about medicine and mental health, it is about life, dreams, hope, love, lust, ambition, death, disappointment, sickness and sorrow.

Mr Faulks writing flows and is very descriptive, it is easy to 'see' and 'feel' the story. His own personal knowledge of Cambridge, England and France show and his research is thorough. In the notes and acknowledgement Mr Faulks gives thanks to those who helped and assisted him with the novel to ensure the historical facts are as accurate as possible. This story consists of 609 pages, it is quite a tome and took me two weeks to read. This is not the fault of the book which I actually found difficult to put down, my lack of reading pace was due to time restraints.

Does a book have to be so big to be so good? In this case, yes! Every page was worth it and relevant to the story. An excellent read and if you have the stamina, I recommend you to give it a go. ( )
1 vote booketta | Jun 13, 2011 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0099458268, Paperback)

What is it to be human? This question, as in Birdsong, is at the heart of Human Traces.

The story begins in Brittany where a young, poor boy somehow passes his medical exams and goes to Paris, where he attends the lectures of Charcot, the Parisian neurologist who set the world on its head in the 1870s. With a friend, he sets up a clinic in the mysterious mountain district of Carinthia in south-east Austria.

If The Girl at the Lion d’Or was a simple three-movement symphony, Birdsong an opera, Charlotte Gray a complex four-movement symphony and On Green Dolphin Street a concerto, then Human Traces is a Wagnerian grand opera.

From the Hardcover edition.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:37:03 -0400)

(see all 4 descriptions)

Sharing its central theme of what it means to be human with 'Birdsong', this is the story of a young man who, after attending medical school, decides to set up a clinic in the mysterious Carinthian mountains in south-east Austria.

(summary from another edition)

» see all 6 descriptions

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