A book with heart
Sebastian Faulks presents yet another brilliant depiction of the experiences of war, wrapped up in psychobabble. Although beautifully written, I could have done with more of the former and less of the latter
Sebastian Faulks returns to his favourite themes of intellect, trauma, anguish, redemption through the looking glass of the First and Second World Wars, in his latest novel Where my heart used to beat.
It is a fragmented work, but a fascinating read and, although a little rambly at times, another searing analysis of the effect of war and how our lives are shaped by events.
We join our protagonist, Dr Robert Hendricks, an eminent psychiatrist, in the 1980s. He comes across as a rather cold fish, somewhat repressed, with a sequence of vignettes showing us snapshots of his life, that don’t seem to be leading anywhere.
It is when he is invited to visit the mysterious Alexander Pereira, that the author gets into his stride and Hendricks is forced to recount his experiences of the Second World War. We know from the outset that his father died in the First World War, leaving his widow to raise her young son. He has no memory of his father, but recalls once visiting an uncle in an asylum, with his mother.
Pereira fought with Hendricks’ father in the First World War and is able, through their meetings, to fill Robert in on what happened, as well as help the tortured doctor come to terms with his own experiences – not least reawaken the memory of the love of his life, Luisa, who he had met in Italy, while on sick leave after being shot.
Robert and Luisa had a passionate affair in 1944, which comes to an abrupt end and rather shapes his attitude to life, and women in particular, in the ensuing years.
This is not a classic, in the vein of Birdsong, but it is nevertheless an interesting and sometimes uncomfortable unpeeling of someone’s life. Like Stephen Wraysford in Birdsong, Robert Hendricks is a flawed character. His childhood shaped by an absent father, a buttoned-up mother and a searing intellect. Ironically he specialises in psychiatry, setting out to help others deal with their mental demons, while never facing up to his own.
It is as if Hendricks himself is being made to sit on the couch, which many of his patients have inhabited, and give us his life story through the book. By doing so, he is able to come to a better understanding of himself and we are treated to some great literary prose and yet again some brutal depictions of both wars.
The strongest parts of the book are Hendricks junior’s experiences during the Second World War; his fellow soldiers are brilliantly portrayed. You get a sense of the camaraderie and of course, those who survive, and those who don’t, is entirely indisciminate.
Sebastian Faulks makes sure his war passages are historically accurate so you get a sense of the hopeless situation these men are all thrown into as they carry out each military campaign, but always with a wry smile and brotherly banter between them.
The psycho-analysis, which goes on between him and Pereira, is a little heavy at times and my concentration wavered during those moments, but it is overall a satisfying portrait of one man.
However, there is a sense of redemption, when all the strands come together towards the end and it enables him to make some sense of his life choices and bring it all into perspective.
Returning, to his childhood home, a vast rambling house called The Old Tannery, Hendricks finds a new lease of life through his work and is able to reflect on the words of his favourite poet, TS Eliot and the sentiments of The Four Quartets, often quoted throughout the novel – “...the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time”.
If you’re a fan of Sebastian Faulks then you won’t be disappointed, and if you’re discovering him for the first time, enjoy his use of language and easy-flowing style and then move on to The Birdsong Trilogy and prepare to be amazed.