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A reader's guide to Human Traces

Updated Saturday 28th February 2009

Continuing with the celebration of Darwin's bicentenary, we invite you to join us reading, 'Human Traces' by Sebastian Faulks: set in the 1800s, this study of psychiatry in its infancy includes debates about scientific and medical developments, and Darwinism. Here's Stephanie Foward with a brief introduction...

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Sebastian Faulks Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: BBC

Human Traces is epic in scope, following the lives of two men born in 1860.

Jacques Rebière and Thomas Midwinter become pioneering doctors, devoting their careers to the care of the mentally ill. In part, Jacques is driven by the need to understand the malady afflicting his beloved elder brother, Olivier.

An abandoned asylum [Image: phill.d under CC-BY-NC-SA licence] Creative commons image Icon phill.d via Flickr under Creative-Commons license
An abandoned asylum [Image: phill.d under CC-BY-NC-SA licence]

When Jacques and Thomas first encounter each other, there is a true meeting of minds. They embark upon "the project of a lifetime", motivated by the challenge to comprehend "the way in which functions the mind of the human" (sic).

This quest takes them all over the globe, from France and England to Germany, Austria-Hungary, America, and to Africa, where Thomas senses "the grandeur of human insignificance".

Drawing inspiration from his passion for literature, he reflects upon life's mysteries and suggests that: "The failure is not in the answers, but in the questions."

 

Later he will argue that the insane "pay the price for all of us", and advocates that we should turn our healthy lives "day by day, into an extended rapture".

The novel addresses profound issues, sometimes presenting the lectures delivered by Jacques and Thomas, and including meaningful debates about Darwinism and scientific and medical developments.

However the engrossing intellectual content does not distract us from the characters and their family relationships. Sonia is a particularly engaging heroine and, later in the book, Daniel Rebière's wartime experiences evoke the poignant, haunting quality of Birdsong.

The final sequences of Human Traces are stunning and affecting in their beauty, offering a serene conclusion.

 

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