Customer Review

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars An 'Interesting' Read: But worth the effort??, 14 Sept. 2007
This review is from: Human Traces (Paperback)
When I reviewed Engleby I wrote that I had had difficulty in getting past the first few pages of this book, but having been pleasantly surprised by Faulks' latest offering, I went back and made another effort. Suffice to say I did manage to read the novel this time.

Human Traces is a curious book. I started it in high hopes, as it had that solid, cogent, intelligent feel to it- much as `Birdsong'. However, it became harder going as it progressed, and I ended up feeling that somehow it didn't properly reward the effort of having read it.

There was clearly a great deal of research involved in the construction of this novel: not least the arcana of late nineteenth century scholarship on psychiatry. Faulks isn't the only writer to found fictional work on factual study- take Julian Barnes' `Arthur and George' for example, or in the Theatre Tom Stoppard's glittering and thought-provoking takes on string theory or code-breaking. The problem with Human Traces is that it gives the reader a misplaced expectation that something momentous is about to occur, when in fact nothing significant does.

I can see that this might be a clever ploy: after all, not every scientific endeavour is rewarded with a breakthrough, or a re-interpretation of accepted theories, and not all lives are destined to be glorious (few are!). In which case the `argument' of human traces is `What effect do we have on the world?' and `What `traces' do we leave behind?'. From that point of view, the novel is quite eloquent on the desolation life wreaks on our hopes and expectations, and indeed what we believe others to be capable of.

On balance, however, Faulks' central characters Thomas and Jacques scarcely come close to understanding the causes of madness, and much of the novel is taken up with a layman's explanation of the various conflicting- and changing- theories on mental illness. Even from an historical perspective, this is of limited interest: Yes, I can follow the progression from the confinement of the asylum to the liberation of the sanatorium, but ultimately there is no significant point to be made.

Faulks is devotedly Francophile, and the novel reads like a worthy translation of a weighty French novel, though without (thankfully) the moralising.

The author does create memorable characters and is capable of creating a large and coherent canvass with the greatest craftsmanship. He is clearly a keen observer of human nature and I would have given up long before the end if much of his narrative had not rung so true.

Two cheers only, I'm afraid.
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