By Judith Umbach
Perhaps hearing disembodied voices is a gift, not a psychopathology. Could the carrying of voiced instructions in our heads be the true mark of being human? Occasionally, it all goes wrong and we call it mental illness. Yet, the interior hearing of the voices of our loved ones, our leaders, and our past selves is so common as to be universal.
In his novel, Human Traces, Sebastian Faulks explores our understanding of the human mind in the framework of early psychological research at the turn of the last century. At the story’s beginning, Jacques is a boy who would be considered abused in our times but who then was considered to be a farm labourer, the natural course of family life in rural France. His older brother, Olivier, has descended into madness, kept shackled in the barn for his and the family’s safety. A friendly local priest rescues Jacques from his fate of subjection and frustrated ambition, giving him an unorthodox education.
Thomas is a bright, eccentric English boy - loved by his family, given wide-ranging freedom to explore his world, and educated according to upper-middle class standards. On holiday in France, the two boys meet and in the way of some friendships, they become immediately inseparable. For life.
As professional medical men, and with Sophie, Thomas’s sister, then Jacques’ wife, they establish a therapeutic spa in central Europe to treat the exhausted, the psychosomatic, and the mentally ill. The three owners demonstrate a sensible approach to the economics of business, in order to achieve Jacques’ goal of first caring-for and then curing his brother. The men are determined to advance the knowledge of psychiatric factors in illness and wellness.
Faulks occasionally strays from his fictional style to speak almost directly to the reader about the early research in this field; however, since the information is interesting in light of our more sophisticated current knowledge, this is easily forgiven. Human Traces is a fascinating, slow-moving novel, in which we share the false starts and tiny progressions towards a better understanding of ourselves.