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HUMAN TRACES Sebastian Faulks

by: Sebastian Faulks




Review
Sebastian Faulks' novel, Human Traces, explores the nature of humanity, the make-up of our conscious minds and what it is that makes humans so perplexingly different from other creatures. Jacques Rebi're and Thomas Midwinter, from different countries and contrasting families, are united by an ambition to understand how the mind works and whether madness is the price we pay for being human. As psychiatrists, their quest takes them from the squalor of the Victorian lunatic asylum to crowded lecture halls in Paris; from California to the plains of Africa. As the First World War divides Europe, the novel rises to a climax in which the value of what it means to be alive seems to hang in the balance. With scenes of emotional power, moving and challenging in equal measure, Human Traces explores the question of what kind of beings we really are.
618pp, 128mm x 194mm, softback, 2006

Extract
Faverill shot a look across the room at Matilda. 'When I was a young doctor, there was much optimism in the air. The new asylums were embodiments of our hope. I believed - as did my colleagues - that we could not merely care for mad people, we could cure them. That was our article of faith. Now, thirty years later, I have cured almost no one. The most common ailments in this asylum are idiocy, which is inherited and incurable, and epilepsy which may have some source in the activity of the brain, though we know not where. Then there is general paralysis of the insane, the results of which I have observed post-mortem when the brain is horribly damaged. But we have no idea what causes it. My own suspicion is that it is somehow connected with syphilis, but we have no way of demonstrating this. And finally there is a kind of dementia, hearing voices and so on, which appears to begin in young people and to intensify. We are far from agreeing even a description, let alone a cure for that. Some forms of mania and melancholia do seem to improve, but whether that is because of hot baths and cascarilla or whether they have just run their course, I could not say. It is a damnable state of affairs.'

'But we will understand madness, will we not'' said Sonia. She was thinking of Jacques's poor brother. 'We will cure it.'

Faverill stood up. 'That is why I admire your brother, Mrs Prendergast, and am so loth to see him go. He too believes there will be cures. And unlike me, he has the energy and the will to find them.'

'Do you no longer believe we will discover remedies''

'Not until we understand what makes us who we are. My instinct, though I am pitifully far from being able to prove it true, is that what makes us mad is almost the same thing as that which makes us human.'

Sonia frowned. 'You mean that we are fallen' Imperfect' That God gave us the capacity to suffer more than other animals''

'Yes,' said Faverill. 'That is one way of explaining it. It is the price we pay for being favoured by the Almighty. Mr Darwin might prefer to put it differently. If we were to borrow his language, we could say that when the brain one day developed the capacity that made the species Homo sapiens, it developed simultaneously a predisposition to kinds of insanity. Though since we are the only animals to have madness, you may regard what I have just said as no more than a simple tautology.'

'I see,' said Sonia, not quite certainly.

'whether you choose to explain it in the terms of the Bible or Mr Darwin seems to me to make almost no difference,' said Faverill.

There was a knock at the door. 'Ah, Midwinter,' said Faverill warmly. 'I was explaining to your sister how much we are going to miss you.'

'Thank you,' said Thomas. 'And I shall miss you, and some of the patients.'

'Not all''

Thomas laughed. 'By no means all. Now, Sonia, I promised you a tour of the asylum. I am going to show you some of the improvements we are making. May I, sir''

'You may take the lady where you wish, Midwinter. Though there are perhaps one or two wards which might... The gentler sex, you understand...'

'Of course.'

As she followed Thomas out, Sonia felt a little chastened by her interview with Faverill. She did not understand what he had meant about Mr Darwin, whose book she had only ever heard spoken of with derision. Faverill seemed to suggest that human beings were not an absolute thing, but could easily have developed into something similar but slightly different. The 'variation' that transformed them from pre-human into human entailed weaknesses that made them mad. If that tiny change had gone another way, they would not have been mad, but presumably they would not have been quite human either...

Thomas led her to a small brick outbuilding.

'I am going to show you my secret project,' he said. 'Shut the door and make sure you pull that black curtain across. Now follow me.'

The building was divided into two parts, the second of which they now entered. The brick walls were painted black, the floor was made of earth, but there were two electric lights, one white, one red, which Thomas switched on. 'You never expected to find such modern equipment at our asylum, did you, Sonia' Electricity! Only for the darkroom, I am afraid, not yet for the poor patients. I had to spend some time persuading Dr Faverill.'

'I think you are quite the teacher's pet, Thomas.'

'Ssh. This is my beloved Underwood. Reliable, portable, and with beautiful tapering bellows. You see' If they did not taper it would be twice the size. The real joy of it is that it takes dry plates.'

Sonia looked round the first room of the shed and saw that the walls were covered with photographs  of the insane. Some of them looked bedraggled and retarded, some vacant and some quite rational. Sonia felt a faintly demeaning curiosity to know more about each one, and what their problem was.

'I am making a reference library of the patients, so we know which one is which. They are stored in McLeish's office with their names on the back.' He pointed out various patients to her on the wall. 'This is Daisy. She is a very nice girl.'

'And what is the matter with her''

'Nothing very much. She has spent too much time in an asylum. This poor lady on the other hand is as mad as a March hare.'

'Is that the diagnosis you offer to the Commissioners''

'No. I make up something more sonorous to impress them. Let's walk in the fresh air.'

As they made their way slowly towards the ice-house, Thomas said, 'There is a famous man called Galton who takes photographs of mad people and then lays the images one on top of the other. He is trying to show that all murderers have the same shaped head, or that if you have a long jaw you are likely to be melancholic.'

'And that is not what you do''

'No. I do just the opposite. I use them to make the patients look like less of a type and more of an individual. When I see them in their wards, I see a sort of undifferentiated mass. But when I take a picture, I see each man and woman. And each one is in fact a human with a story. In some ways the insanity is the least important thing about them. In a photograph they are still complete, so one is not tempted to see them so much as something broken.'

From Human Traces, £2006 by Sebastian Faulks, published by Vintage.


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