Floundering in ‘a century of psychosis’
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”.