Floun­der­ing in ‘a cen­tury of psy­chosis’

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Mal­colm Forbes Mal­colm Forbes is an Ed­in­burgh-based re­viewer.

Where My Heart Used to Beat By Se­bas­tian Faulks Hutchin­son, 326pp, $32.99

At their best, Se­bas­tian Faulks’s nov­els are high-stakes dra­mas in which char­ac­ters find them­selves buf­feted and shaped by history. There is Pi­etro Rus­sell in A Fool’s Al­pha­bet (1992), whose chopped-up life un­folds in 26 sec­tions. There is the epony­mous Char­lotte Gray who, af­ter be­ing parachuted into wartime France by Bri­tish In­tel­li­gence, be­comes ac­tive with the French Re­sis­tance. And in his most fa­mous and most-loved work, Bird­song (1993), Stephen Wraysford is wrenched from a love af­fair and hurled into the churn­ing car­nage of trench war­fare.

In his pre­vi­ous novel, A Pos­si­ble Life (2012), Faulks waded into hitherto un­charted wa­ters by chron­i­cling five dis­parate lives from the past, present and even the fu­ture and high­light­ing the in­tri­cate ways in which they were in­ter­con­nected. His new novel, Where My Heart Used to Beat, con­tin­ues the tra­di­tion of a hero turned in­side out by 20th-cen­tury up­heavals and the au­thor med­i­tat­ing on life — in this case, “What is a life? What is it worth?”

How­ever, Faulks goes fur­ther by fol­low­ing a man whose pro­fes­sional aim is to dis­cover the ex­tent to which our delu­sions are shaped by our ex­pe­ri­ence, and whose pri­vate sor­row ham­pers any hope of find­ing peace of mind.

That pro­tag­o­nist is Robert Hen­dricks, an English psy­chi­a­trist, whose can­did first-per­son nar­ra­tion of­fers us “a true view of my­self and my con­cerns”. The course of his early life con­sti­tutes a fa­mil­iar tra­jec­tory, one Faulks al­ways de­scribes so evoca­tively: a tucked-away English vil­lage, cricket and clas­sics, first love fum­blings and read­ing by torch­light be­neath the bed­clothes, be­fore aca­demic stud­ies and care­free ca­ma­raderie in a clois­tered but equally be­nign world. The only shadow tar­nish­ing this sunny boy­hood is the ab­sence of Robert’s fa­ther, a ca­su­alty of World War I.

But Faulks’s novel is no neat bil­dungsro­man or cra­dle-to-grave history. Robert is a Lon­don­based 60-some­thing who feeds us his back­story in dribs and drabs while go­ing nowhere fast in the present, that is 1980. When we first meet him he is indulging in a “zo­o­log­i­cal com­edy” with a call girl. Since los­ing the love of his life — the enig­matic L — in the war, he has “cau­terised his own wounds by in­sist­ing that love was a neu­ral mal­func­tion and a cat­e­gory er­ror”. This “habitue of lone­li­ness” has few friends, shuns re­unions with fel­low vet­er­ans and forges “only ties of lust or con­ve­nience”.

One day Robert is roused from his melan­choly by a let­ter from a stranger. Alexan­der Pereira, a re­tired neu­rol­o­gist, is near­ing the end of his life and look­ing for a literary ex­ecu­tor. He dan­gles a juicier car­rot by claim­ing to have served in the same unit as Robert’s fa­ther in the war. His cu­rios­ity piqued, Robert trav­els out to Pereira’s re­mote is­land off the south of France to learn more about the fa­ther he never knew.

Faulks could have spun an easy and pre­dictable tale about Robert get­ting a new lease of life by suc­cumb­ing to the ad­vances of gamine is­land girl Ce­line, charm­ing sullen house­keeper Paulette and find­ing an in­tel­lec­tual spar­ring part­ner in Pros­pero-es­que Pereira.

In­stead he turns the ta­bles on Robert by mak­ing him the pa­tient on the couch and Pereira the psy­chi­a­trist tasked with elic­it­ing and analysing sup­pressed mem­o­ries. Soon, heart­bro­ken and bat­tle-scarred Robert is open­ing up for the first time in decades, re­count­ing “the never-again years of my twen­ties”.

As ever, Faulks bowls us over with his in­tense, meat-grind­ing war seg­ments. Robert is shunted from pa­rade ground to North Africa, be­fore be­ing sent on an “Ital­ian ad­ven­ture” to Anzio. A wound saves him from the pro­longed blood­bath and it is while on leave that he meets and falls for Red Cross worker Luisa. The more Robert di­vulges, the more the mist clears, ex­pos­ing the mis­for­tune that ter­mi­nated his love af­fair, and his fruit­less search for ful­fil­ment in the post­war years.

It is fair to say that doomed love, at­tri­tional bat­tles, men­tal health dis­cus­sions and a world­weary char­ac­ter with a re­lent­lessly bleak out­look (“I be­long to a failed species. A dis­as­trous mu­ta­tion”) do not make for cheery read­ing. Granted, a mourn­ful tone per­vades the book, but Faulks off­sets the gloom by hav­ing Robert slowly emerge from his seclu­sion, shrug off his fear and self-loathing, and re­con­nect with hu­man­ity at large. It sounds pat and mawk­ish — af­ter years of mak­ing the sick bet­ter, a psy­chi­a­trist fi­nally heals him­self — but in Faulks’s hands Robert’s tran­si­tion is art­ful and mov­ing.

Not that ev­ery loss in Robert’s life is felt by the reader. Un­like Bird­song, we are un­able to share his an­guish for fallen friends be­cause Faulks’s war sec­tions come in con­densed bursts rather than sus­tained on­slaughts. And there are no char­ac­ters like the two young Jewish boys in Char­lotte Gray whose fate had read­ers pro­ceed­ing with their nails down to the quick and their hearts in their mouths. That said, Luisa’s reap­pear­ance 40 years later is gen­uinely af­fect­ing, and Pereira’s fi­nal word on Robert’s fa­ther in the book’s clos­ing pages packs an unan­tic­i­pated punch.

As Robert sits down with Pereira for the first time, we worry that Faulks is re­vis­it­ing Hu­man Traces, his 2005 novel about two pi­o­neer­ing psy­chi­a­trists, which was marred by whole chap­ters of un­leav­ened ex­po­si­tion. For­tu­nately, though, Faulks has since learned how to hold back and blend in. Where My Heart Used to Beat is more sub­tle in its treat­ment of mem­ory and mad­ness, and more com­pelling as a study of a man floun­der­ing in love and war in “a cen­tury of psy­chosis”.

Se­bas­tian Faulks

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