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Human Traces (Vintage International) Paperback – March 18, 2008

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Editorial Reviews

From 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 Rebière, 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 © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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It's daunting to begin a lengthy novel on the early history of psychiatry, but Faulks' latest (after Green Dolphin Street) is less stodgy than this description suggests. In 1880, Jacques Rebiere, a Breton medical student, meets young Englishman Thomas Midwinter at a resort in Deauville, France. They're overjoyed to discover a mutual fascination with the human mind, "the meeting point between thought and flesh." Over the next 35 years, with the help of Thomas' sister, Sonia, they single-mindedly pursue their goal: to run a clinic that will cure, not merely house, the mentally ill. Their mission takes them from the overcrowded Salpetriere Hospital in Paris to the mountains of Austria, and from California's Sierra Madres to the dry African plains, where the earliest humans walked; when describing physical landscapes, Faulks' prose is sublime. He shapes his characters' personalities with a surgeon's gentle precision, but with voluminous pages of case notes and lectures, the novel hardly wears its research lightly. Continually fascinating despite its density, this intellectual epic explores the uneasy relationship between madness and humanity. Sarah Johnson
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Product Details

  • Series: Vintage International
  • Paperback: 672 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; Reprint edition (March 18, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375704574
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375704574
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 1.5 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (33 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #201,138 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

18 of 19 people found the following review helpful By A True Amazon Shopping Fan on July 19, 2007
Format: Paperback
Although this is not an "easy" read, it is quite fascinating. The integration of the history of psychology with the story line of two fictional pioneers in the field was extremely well done. I have a degree in psychology, yet found myself learning many new things about the bases of current psychological theory, and I completely enjoyed the trouncing of the Oedipal complex and other parameters of the "Viennese" school even though Freud was never mentioned by name. Faulks draws his characters with style and verve - he has a good handle on both conscious and subconscious motivations, so the people of his novel do come to life and earn a place in your heart.
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17 of 18 people found the following review helpful By Roger Brunyate TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on November 30, 2006
Format: Hardcover
This huge novel spans the careers of two pioneering psychiatrists, one French, one English, who meet as boys and eventually co-found a sanatorium in the mountains of Austria, until driven apart by professional disagreements and the outbreak of the first War. For the first 250 pages of this 600-page book, the story holds the interest with warm characters, fascinating settings, and the stirrings of romance. However, the long lectures and scientific papers that Faulks uses to demonstrate the growing differences between the two (one is a Freudian, the other a Darwinian) come to clog the book around the half-way point, and although the two men continue to develop in interesting ways as people, he loses the sense of linear narrative. But Faulks pulls it all together in the last hundred pages; always a magnificent war novelist (see BIRDSONG, his masterpiece), his WW1 scenes appear almost as a lyrical interlude, with striking cathartic effect, and his final chapters have their own quiet beauty.
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13 of 15 people found the following review helpful By Susan Feathers on October 16, 2008
Format: Paperback
What does it mean to be human? Are we at the mercy of our inner, unconscious drives, a product of incomplete evolution - caught halfway between the new brain and the old brain, a work in progress?

Are people who hear voices crazy? Or, do they retain an ancient ability to talk to the gods, throwback to a previous version of us?

Faulk explores these questions in the context of early nineteenth century culture and science. Darwinism, archaeological discoveries in Africa, and war all play into this rich examination of what it means to be human.

Two men, each from disparate childhood circumstances, come together as clinicians in the newly forming field of psychiatry in Europe. Their ongoing discussion provides the raison d'etre of the plot.

Two women - one, a constant presence, all along the way showing us what may be the most human characteristic of all.

Sebastian Faulk gives us no sketch but rather a masterwork with shadings, details, complex colors, and a grand canvas for it all.

Susan Williams
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By K. Mattern on October 8, 2010
Format: Hardcover
I loved this book and hoped it would never end- it could easily have continued past 570 pages for me! - but then, a lot of the material on the brain, the history of psychiatry and neurology was not new to me, and therefore not a struggle or tedious for me to read. In fact, I enjoyed recapping so much that was familiar to me and also learning something new (new to me). I developed an interest in these fields early in life, although I did not pursue this interest professionally, and I found that Faulks did a great job of covering so many aspects of mental illness - illustrating in fictional form what it might have meant to be mentally ill or working with the mentally ill then, and still today in some parts of the world. Some of the lectures, the case study of Katharina von A, for example, were a bit longish, but in a certain way, these elements, for me, made the book even more compelling because of their educational value, being quite authentic for the period, and presenting the various competing psychiatric points of view in a straightforward almost didactic style - yet all the time tempered by the personal interest we take in the lives of the members of the little Midwinter-Rebiere family.

Surrounding the 'educational' dimension of the book is all the beauty we've come to expect of contemporary 're-creations' of 19th century literature. (There must be a better way to say that!) The book is like a living, moving painting in its vivid descriptions of nature, place, and character. In fact, I found the characters believable, sympathetic and, also in terms of their inner lives, rich. I loved the way the author took us through time with the main characters Sonia, Thomas and Jacques. Found them thoroughly believable and was interested at every turn in their unfolding lives.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By R. M. Peterson TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on September 7, 2012
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
So says Thomas Midwinter, the central character of this enthralling, sprawling novel by Sebastian Faulks. It follows the lives of two men, born in the 1860s, one from England and the other from France. For different reasons they each are interested in the way the human mind functions. They meet by chance around 1880, and charged with the idealism and ambition of youth and a late-nineteenth-century optimism about the power of science, they form a pact to discover the cause - and, surely then, the cure as well - of all forms of madness. Thomas Midwinter continues his education in England, culminating with a stint at a huge and monstrous insane asylum where the lunatics are warehoused. Jacques Rebière gets his education at the famous Salpêtrière in Paris. As "mad-doctors", they open a clinic in Paris, and then a sanatorium in Carinthia (Austria), which they operate until the outbreak of WWI. Along the way they get married, father children, have professional differences, and are visited by personal tragedy. The story ends around 1922.

HUMAN TRACES is a big, somewhat old-fashioned novel, of a type there are far too few these days. There is nothing "post-modern" about it. Two things stand out (as was also the case with the one other novel by Faulks that I have read, "A Week in December"). First is the grand, sweeping story, with plenty of human interest and dramatic episodes, including love affairs, tragic deaths, even an expedition to the jungles of East Africa and scenes of battle in WWI. Second, that story is also a platform for provocative ideas. If you turn off the thinking, inquisitive part of your mind and simply follow the novel for the story, wonderful though that story is, you will be missing many of the novel's pleasures.
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