Human Traces

Human Traces

4.1 6
by Sebastian Faulks

View All Available Formats & Editions

Sixteen-year-old Jacques Rebière is living a humble life in rural France, studying butterflies and frogs by candlelight in his bedroom. Across the Channel, in England, the playful Thomas Midwinter, also sixteen, is enjoying a life of ease-and is resigned to follow his father's wishes and pursue a career in medicine.

A fateful seaside meeting four years


Sixteen-year-old Jacques Rebière is living a humble life in rural France, studying butterflies and frogs by candlelight in his bedroom. Across the Channel, in England, the playful Thomas Midwinter, also sixteen, is enjoying a life of ease-and is resigned to follow his father's wishes and pursue a career in medicine.

A fateful seaside meeting four years later sets the two young men on a profound course of friendship and discovery; they will become pioneers in the burgeoning field of psychiatry. But when a female patient at the doctors' Austrian sanatorium becomes dangerously ill, the two men's conflicting diagnosis threatens to divide them—and to undermine all their professional achievements. From the bestselling author of Birdsong comes this masterful novel that ventures to answer challenging questions of consciousness and science, and what it means to be human.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Epic in scope, yet suffused with intimate emotions, Sebastian Faulks' seventh novel is one of those rare works of fiction that satisfies on every level." —Chicago Tribune

“Complex and engrossing. . . . A leisurely, enjoyable read . . . always credible and humane.” —Rocky Mountain News

“Passages of gruesome and thrilling anatomical detail and episodes of medical casework [make Human Traces] read like the best detective fiction.” —USA Today

"A collage of science, ideas, romance, and adventure. . . . Fascinating." —The Boston Globe

Steven Heighton
Although Human Traces is beset with problems, the novel is no failure. A generosity of vision, an integrity of intelligence and feeling lift it above the level of its own elements. If the psychologist Stephen Kosslyn is right to say that "the mind is what the brain does"—a wonder arising from the complex integration of simple, at times misfiring, components—Human Traces can be said to work in much the same way.
—The New York Times
Peter D. Kramer
Faulks understands the difficulties inherent in using fiction to convey these complex arguments. He offsets his characters' earnestness—and his own—through attention to settings and plot details. He sends his protagonists to California and Tanzania to fill in pieces of the puzzle. He allows Rebiere to indulge in titillating sexual obsessions. Generally, the effort to entertain succeeds. And Human Traces can be moving, as its characters grapple with the limitations of knowledge and reason. Despite its shortcomings, the book should serve as a popular vehicle for reassessing the history of psychiatry and confronting the mystery of consciousness.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
Set at the dawn of modern psychiatry in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, British author Faulks's vast, elegant novel follows two "mad-doctors," Thomas Midwinter and his close friend Jacques Rebiere, as they struggle to contribute something great to the emerging discipline. A chance meeting in 1880 leads to a lifelong partnership that lasts through journeys around the Continent and across the Atlantic. The pair vow to unlock the secrets of consciousness, and the novel traces their experiences in the hellish asylums of the day and their diverging approaches to the field. As Jacques grows interested in the Viennese school of psychoanalysis and talk therapy, Thomas focuses on the neurological and evolutionary mechanisms that lead to psychosis. Faulks (Birdsong) shines in his dramatization of Thomas's lectures, presaging contemporary arguments about chemical imbalances. While his characters attempt to discover what makes us human, Faulks also meticulously depicts grief, longing, nostalgia and melancholy through a portrait of Thomas's sister, Sonia. Faulks marries extensive research with a satisfying narrative arc to create a novel that is compelling as both history and literature. (Sept.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
British author Faulks (Birdsong) has produced an epic novel about the rise of the disciplines of psychology and psychiatry from the late 19th century to the years after World War I. The story revolves around two men: Jacques Rebiere, a precociously talented youth with a scientific bent, and Thomas Midwinter, also intellectually gifted and naturally curious but with more of a leaning toward literature. The two meet by chance in a French resort town and together dedicate their lives to finding a solution to the problems of insanity and reaching a basic understanding of consciousness, personality, and memory. Thomas's older sister, Sonia, also figures in the story, as the novel follows the course of her tragic first marriage, her later espousal to Jacques, and her involvement in her husband and brother's quest. There are liberal doses of 19th-century scientific theory, and actual historical scholars play minor roles. One of the novel's central dramatic events is an almost scandalous misdiagnosis of a woman's illness through the scrupulous following of the "latest" accepted principles of psychoanalysis. This is an enjoyable and edifying literary achievement, though probably not good beach reading. For all libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 5/1/06.]-Jim Coan, SUNY Coll. at Oneonta Lib. Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The evolution of psychiatric treatment is explored through the intertwined lives of two 19th-century men. Faulks's epic is as daunting as the path of his main characters. Frenchman Jacques Rebiere, fascinated by science, is brother to Olivier, whose slow descent into madness from middle childhood drives Jacques's search for answers. Englishman Thomas Midwinter is desperate to escape the life planned out for him by his domineering parents. Early in their period of discovery, the two cross paths in a chance meeting precipitated by Sonia, Thomas's older sister. The men's conversation through their language barrier is the start of a long and productive partnership. Faulks (On Green Dolphin Street, 2002, etc.) takes great care in constructing his latest work to fit the narrative style of the period of which he writes. He uses lengthy scenes and a vast array of characters. Perspective shifts occasionally seem awkward: third-person narrative, letters, journal entries, first-person perspective, speeches. The story tracks the nascent profession across Europe and around the world. Each man is on an individual search for meaning, and their experiences run the gamut of dramatic moments. There are loves lost and found, career successes and failure, times of camaraderie and of estrangement. Behind the players, Faulks explores the evolution of thought about . . . thought. The time period covers the shedding of the old ways of thinking and the shift to a new respect for the power of the human mind. The change was arduous at times. The central theme for the author seems to be the delicate balance between the strength of the human spirit and the frailty of human emotion. Logic and reason will bechallenged by love in all its forms. Though the work is somewhat confined by the period framework, Faulks paints a tableux of 19th-century life that is remarkably revealing. Epic in scope, this is an imaginative look at the rise of medicine for the mind.

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Vintage International Series
Edition description:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
7.94(w) x 8.02(h) x 1.14(d)

Read an Excerpt


An evening mist, salted by the western sea, was gathering on the low hills—reed-spattered rises running up from the rocks then back into the gorse- and bracken-covered country—and on to the roads that joined the villages, where lamps and candles flickered behind the shutters of the gray stone houses. It was poor country—so poor, remarked the Cure, who had recently arrived from Angers, that the stones of the shore called out for God's mercy. With the mist came sputtering rain, made invisible by the extinguished light, as it exploded like flung gravel at the windows, while stronger gusts made the shivering pine trees shed their needles on the dark, sanded earth.

Jacques Rebiere listened to the sounds from outside as he looked through the window of his bedroom; for a moment, a dim moon allowed him to see clouds foaming in the darkness. The weather reminded him, often, that it was not just he, at sixteen years old, who was young, but all mankind: a species that took infant steps on the drifts and faults of the earth.

Between the ends of his dirtied fingers, Jacques held a small blade which, over the course of several days, he had whetted to surgical sharpness. He pulled a candle closer. From downstairs he could hear the sound of his father's voice in reluctant negotiation.

The house was at the top of a narrow street that ran off the main square of Saint Agnes. Behind it, the village ended and there were thick woods—Monsieur Rebiere's own property—where Jacques was meant to trap birds and rabbits and prevent other villagers from doing likewise. The garden had an orchard of pear and apple trees whose fruits were collected and set to keep in one of the outbuildings. Rebiere's was a house of many stores: of sheds with beaten earth underfoot and slatted wooden shelves; of brick-floored cellars with stone bins on which the cobwebs closed the access to the bottles; of barred pantry and latched larder with trays of nuts and preserved fruits. The keys were on a ring in the pocket of Rebiere's waistcoat. Although born no more than sixty years earlier, he was known as "old Rebiere," perhaps for the arthritic movement of his knees, when he heaved himself up from his chair and straightened the joints beneath his breeches. He preferred to do business standing up; it gave the transaction a temporary air, helping to convince the other party that bargaining time was short.

Old Rebiere was a forester who worked as the agent for a landowner from Lorient. Over the years he had done some business on his own account, acquiring some parcels of land, three cottages that the heirs did not want to keep, some fields and woodland. Most of his work was no more than that of bailiff or rent collector, but he liked to try to negotiate private deals with a view to becoming a businessman in his own right. Born in the year after Waterloo, he had lived under a republic, three kings and an emperor; twice mayor of the local town, he had found it made little difference which government was in Paris, since so few edicts devolved from the distant center to his own Breton world.

The parlor of the house had smoke-stained wooden paneling and a white stone chimneypiece decorated with the carved head of a wild boar. A small fire was smoldering in the grate as Rebiere attempted to conclude his meeting with the notary who had come to see him. He never invited guests into his study but preferred to speak to them in this public room, as though he might later need witnesses to what had passed between them. His second wife sat in her accustomed chair by the door, sewing and listening. Rebiere's tactic was to say as little as possible; he had found that silence, accompanied by pained inhalation, often induced nervousness in the other side. His contributions, when they were unavoidable, were delivered in a reluctant murmur, melancholy, full of weariness at a world that had obliged him to agree terms so self-wounding.

"I am not a peasant," he told his son. "I am not one of those men you see portrayed at the theater in Paris, who buries his gold in a sock and never buys a bonnet for his wife. I am a businessman who understands the modern world."

From upstairs, Jacques could still hear his father's business murmur. It was true that he was not a peasant, though his parents had been; true too, that he was not the miser of the popular imagination, though partly because the amount of gold he had to hoard was not great enough: forty years of dealing had brought him a modest return, and perhaps, thought Jacques, this was why his father had forbidden him to study any further. From the age of thirteen, he had been set to work, looking after the properties, mending roofs and fences, clearing trees while his father traveled to Quimper and Vannes to cultivate new acquaintances.

Jacques looked back to his table, not wanting to waste the light of the wax candle he had begged from Tante Mathilde in place of the dingy ox-tallow which was all his father would allow him. He took the blade and began, very carefully, to make a shallow incision in the neck of a frog he had pinned, through its splayed feet, to the untreated wood. He had never attempted the operation before and was anxious not to damage what lay beneath the green skin, moist from the saline in which he had kept it. The frog was on its front, and Jacques's blade traveled smoothly up over the top of its head and stopped between the bulging eyes. He then cut two semicircular flaps to join at the nape of the neck and pushed back the pouches of peeled skin, with their pearls of eyes. Beneath his delicate touch he could see now that there was little in the way of protection for the exposed brain. He took out a magnifying glass.

What is a frog's fury? he thought, as he gazed at the tiny thinking organ his knife had exposed. It was beautiful. What does it feel for its spawn or its mate or the flash of water over its skin? The brain of an amphibian is a poor thing, the Cure had warned him; he promised that soon he would acquire the head of a cow from the slaughterhouse, and then they would have a more instructive time. Yet Jacques was happy with his frog's brain. From the side of the table he took two copper wires attached at the other end to a brass rod that ran through a cork which was in turn used to seal a glass bottle coated inside and out with foil.

"Jacques! Jacques! It's time for dinner. Come to the table!"

It was Tante Mathilde's voice; clearly Jacques had not heard the notary depart. He set down the electrodes and blew out the candle, then crossed the landing to the top of the almost-vertical wooden staircase and groped his way down by the familiar indentations of the plaster wall. His grandmother came into the parlor carrying a tureen of soup, which she placed on the table. Rebiere and his wife, known to Jacques as Tante Mathilde, were already sitting down. Rebiere drummed his knife impatiently on the wood while Grand-mÂfire ladled the soup out with her shaking hand.

"Take a bowl out to . . ." Rebiere jerked his head in the direction of the door.

"Wait," said Grand-mere. "There's some rabbit, too."

Rebiere rolled his eyes with impatience as the old woman went out to the scullery again and returned with a second bowl that she handed to Jacques. He carried both dishes carefully to the door and took a lantern to light his way out into the darkness, watching his feet on the shiny cobbles of the yard. At the stable, he set down the food and pulled back the top half of the door; he peered in by the light of the flame and felt his nostrils fill with a familiar sensation.

"Olivier? Are you there? I've brought dinner. There's no bread again, but there's soup and some rabbit. Olivier?"

There was a sudden noise from the horse, like the rumbling clatter of a laden table being overturned, as she shifted in the stall.

"Olivier? Please. It's raining. Where are you?"

Wary of the horse, who lashed out with her hind legs if frightened, Jacques freed the bolt of the door himself and made his way into the ripe darkness of the stable.

Sitting with his back to the wall, his legs spread wide apart on the dung-strewn ground, was his brother.

"I've brought your dinner. How are you?"

Jacques squatted down next to him.

Olivier stared straight ahead, as though unaware that anyone was there. Jacques took his brother's hand and wrapped the fingers round the edge of the soup bowl, noticing what could be smears of excrement on the nails. Olivier moved his head from side to side, thrusting it back hard against the stable wall. He muttered something Jacques could not make out and began to scrape at his inner forearm as if trying to rid himself of a bothersome insect.

Jacques took a spoonful of the soup and held it up to Olivier's face. Gently, he prized open his lips and pushed the metal inward. It was too dark to see how much went into his mouth and how much trickled down his tangled beard.

"They want me to come, they keep telling me. But why should I go, when they know everything already?"

"Who, Olivier? Who does?"

Their eyes met. Jacques felt himself summed up and dismissed from Olivier's mental presence.

"Are you cold? Do you want more blankets?"

Olivier became earnest. "Yes, yes, that's it, you've got to keep warm, you've got to wrap up now the winter's coming. Look. Look at this." He held up the frayed horse blanket beneath which he slept and examined it closely, as though he had not seen it before or had suddenly been struck by its workmanship.

Then his vigor was quenched again and his gaze became still.

Jacques took his hand. "Listen, Olivier. It's nearly a year now that you've been in here. Do you think you could try again? Why don't you come out for a few minutes? I could help."

"They don't want me."

"You always say that. But perhaps they'd be happy to have you back in the house."

"They won't let me go."

Jacques nodded. Olivier was clearly talking of a different "they," and he was too frightened to contradict or to press him. He had been a child when Olivier, four years the older, started to drift away from his family; it began when, previously a lively and sociable youth, he took to passing the evenings alone in his room studying the Bible and drawing up a chart of "astral influences." Jacques was fascinated by the diagrams, which Olivier had done in his clever draftsman's hand, using pens he had taken from the hotel de ville, where he worked as a clerk.

Most of Jacques's experiences had come to him first through the descriptions of Olivier, who naturally anticipated all of them. Mathematics at school were a jumble of pointless signs, he said, that made you want to cry out; being beaten by the master's ruler on the knuckles hurt more than being kicked on the shin by the broody mare. Olivier had never been to Paris, but Vannes, he told Jacques, was so huge that you got lost the moment you let your concentration go; and it was full of women who looked at you in a strange way. When changes came to your body, Olivier said, you noticed nothing, no hairs bursting the skin, no wrench in your voice; the only difference was that you felt urgent, tense, all the time, as though about to leap a stream or jump from a high rock.

Olivier's chart of astral influences therefore looked to Jacques like another early glimpse of a universal human experience granted to him by his elder brother. Olivier had been right about everything else: in Vannes, Jacques kept himself orientated at all times, like a dog sniffing the wind; he liked mathematics, though he saw what Olivier had meant. He avoided the master's beatings.

"Where is God in this plan?" he had said, pointing with his finger. "I see the planets and their influence and this character, here, whatever his name is. But in the Bible, it says that—"

"God is here, in your head. And here." Olivier pointed to the chart. "But it's a secret."

"I don't understand," said Jacques. "If this is Earth here, this is Saturn, and here are the rings of Jupiter and this is the body you've discovered, the one that regulates the movements of people, then what are these lines here? Are these the souls of the dead going up to heaven?"

"Those are the rays of influence. They emanate from space, far beyond anything we can see. These are what control you."


"Of course. Like rays of light, or invisible waves of sound. The universe is bombarded with them. You can't hear them. You can't see them."

"Does everyone know about them? All grown-ups?"


"How do you know about them? Who told you?"

"I have been told."

Jacques looked away. Over the weeks, he discovered that Olivier's system of cosmic laws and influences was invulnerably cogent; there was in fact something of the weary sage in his manner when he answered yet another of Jacques's immature questions about it, while its ability to adapt made it impermeable to doubt. Olivier was always right, and his rightness was in the detail. Jacques was not sure that this next phase of his education, these rays and planets into which Olivier was inducting him, was one he welcomed. He believed in what he learned at church and in what the Cure told him later in their walks through the woods and down to the sea. At least, he thought he did; he believed that he believed.

"Would you like some of the rabbit? Grand-mere cooked it."

Jacques wanted the company of his brother but shrank from sitting in the fouled straw.

"Don't you want a bath, Olivier? Would you like to wash?"

"I take my bath in the sea."

"You haven't been to the sea for—"

"The water runs clear . . . Always clear."

"What do you do all day, Olivier? When I go out to work for Papa?"

He felt Olivier's breath on his cheek. "That's the trouble with the army. No time to yourself. You're up at six, and it's stand-to at six fifteen. They've sent all my clothes back to Rennes . . . But you shouldn't stand there, that's not your place."

Meet the Author

Sebastian Faulks's six previous novels include Birdsong (1993), Charlotte Gray (2000), The Girl at the Lion d'Or (1989) and On Green Dolphin Street (2001). He is also the author of a biographical study, The Fatal Englishman (1996). He lives in London, is married and has two sons and a daughter.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >

Human Traces 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The exploration of the human mind from the view of 19th century doctors on the edge of some understanding but so far from knowing. It was utterly fascinating with enough back story to keep you engaged with the characters. Not an easy read but worth the effort and time you put into it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Barbara Macgregor More than 1 year ago
Book is very thought-provoking. Very happy although there are a couple parts that dragged on. Highly recommend if you are interested in mental health or if you like 'crazy' stories. Most of the time it kept me on my toes.
Guest More than 1 year ago
A hugely erudite, compelling guide to psychiatric thought and the assimilation of evolutionary theory into science, 1870-1920. As good or better than Birdsong, Human Traces is one of the best and most moving novels I have ever read.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Okay I must say I've never been one to give up on a book, but i read 3/4 of this book and couldn't take it anymore. the first chapter was the best. the author has a great vocabulary and writes beautiful passages but this book lacks plot and time passage is hard to follow
Guest More than 1 year ago