‘Where My Heart Used to Beat” shares with Sebastian Faulks’s 2005 masterpiece, “Human Traces,” a haunting preoccupation with the nature of individual consciousness — one of “our species’ freakish advantages in the battle for survival,” narrator Robert Hendricks calls it in this new novel. But while “Human Traces” emulated 19th-century fiction in its epic sweep and teeming cast of characters, “Where My Heart Used to Beat” stays locked in the consciousness of Hendricks, a London psychiatrist who in 1980 finds himself at an existential impasse. “I am so alone,” he thinks at a bleak moment not 20 pages into his story. “I couldn’t go forward in my life — whatever remained of it — until I had a better understanding of what was past.”
We won’t grasp the extent of Hendricks’s loneliness, or the degree to which it is self-inflicted, until later in the novel, but his desolation is apparent from the opening scene of joyless sex with a prostitute, followed in short order by the admission that he has felt all his life like “an imposter.” A chance to move forward comes in the form of a letter from Alexander Pereira, an elderly neurologist who served with Hendricks’s father in World War I. The letter extends an invitation to Pereira’s home on a French island, expressing admiration for Hendricks’s book “The Chosen Few” and the hope that the younger man will consider becoming his literary executor. Though disconcerted by the reference to his book, a radical psychiatric manifesto he now considers “a terrible mistake,” Hendricks is tempted by the possibility of learning more about his father, who died in 1918 when he was only two. He accepts Pereira’s invitation.
After this compellingly fraught set-up (a Faulks trademark since his 1993 bestseller “Birdsong”), we watch as Pereira alternately goads and cajoles Hendricks to slowly untangle a snarl of personal, professional, and spiritual traumas that date back to his childhood but grew to crippling proportions after his experiences in World War II. The instrumental role of a relative stranger in this long-overdue stock-taking might seem improbable if we hadn’t already seen how desperate Hendricks is to break free from the shell he’s constructed; he just needs a prompt, and Pereira provides it. Moreover, Pereira’s work on dementia and memory loss has powerful connections to the theories about madness and consciousness laid out in “The Chosen Few,” and intellectual relationships matter as much as emotional ones to Hendricks.
They also matter deeply to Faulks, an unabashed novelist of ideas who never forgets that thought is organically rooted in feeling. Planting clues and dangling red herrings as though he were writing a murder mystery, Faulks expertly crafts a harrowing portrait of Hendricks as a man defined by loss: first of his father, then of comrades slaughtered on the battlefields of North Africa and Europe, and finally of the Italian woman he falls in love with towards the war’s close.
As Hendricks goes on to describe his postwar medical training and formative years at an alternative, decidedly utopian psychiatric treatment center, we begin to understand why he is so embarrassed by “The Chosen Few”: It’s too personal.
Readers of “Human Traces” will recognize Hendricks’s argument that the mentally ill suffer from an extreme form of the self-awareness that distinguishes human beings from animals. But the notion that we have lost our ability to be “at one with creation,” a matter for gentle regret to the earlier novel’s Victorian protagonist, here takes a dark 20th-century turn.
Hendricks, orphaned by one world war and bereft by the next, argues that “the trenches, the death camps, and the gulags . . . could only be understood as psychotic expressions of the genetic human curse”: the overriding focus on self that leads us to deny our kinship with nature and to turn other people into objects for use and abuse. He’s not entirely wrong, but the flood of memories unloosed by Pereira make wincingly apparent the intimate origins of this conviction. Hendricks has taken his own alienated loneliness and defined it as the human condition.
Coming to terms with this realization also involves coming to terms with his losses, which are given two wrenching new twists in the final chapters. Nonetheless Hendricks, at 64, makes a tentative new start in a touching scene that sends him back to the childhood home he fled so many years ago to reclaim his professional idealism “with more realistic ambitions.” We hope for at least a measure of happiness for this man of sorrows, because Faulks has drawn us so persuasively and passionately into his struggles.
WHERE MY HEART USED TO BEAT
By Sebastian Faulks
Henry Holt, 352 pp., $27
Wendy Smith, a contributing editor at The American Scholar and Publishers Weekly, reviews books for the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, and The Daily Beast.