I am a self-confessed admirer of Sebastian Faulks and any additions to an already impressive body of work are typically to be savoured. For me, the author has consistently delivered novels that are both interesting and evincing a silky use of language, but two themes have repeatedly captured Faulks’ imagination. Indeed, he excels at books involving wartime experiences – WW1 or WW2 (think ‘Birdsong’ or ‘Charlotte Gray’) and mental illness (think ‘Human Traces’ or ‘Engleby’). What these themes tend to have in common is the prospect of turmoil for the characters involved, elements of unpredictability for the plot and untidy conclusions – the legacy of both can be far-reaching. It is also true that these two themes can profoundly define individual lives and, in the case of the world wars, whole generations. In ‘Where my heart used to beat’ Faulks has created (almost inevitably) a tale that deftly merges these themes and brings together two survivors of their respective generations’ global conflict, bound by the shared curiosity and insights of trained psychiatrists.
The British psych’ is introduced first. In New York for a medical conference, he uses his friend’s flat to use a prostitute, before hurriedly leaving for his home in London. This is a peculiar opening, which reveals much about the character, very quickly, including an ongoing affair with ‘Annalisa’, but without naming Robert Hendricks, until he takes his messages off the ansaphone in his London flat. Before the end of the opening chapter though, he’s also had an argument with his aforementioned girlfriend and feels quite alone. This struck me as a really clever means to sketch out this central character and in a sense prepare the canvas for the layering of colours to follow. Still, Hendricks’ assertion that, “I was an habitué of loneliness, which was in any case the underlying condition of mankind from which the little alliances and dependencies we make are only a diversion.” alludes to the complex psyche of the man and the torturous nature of his life’s experiences.
Among the letters awaiting Hendricks’ return is one from the unknown Alexander Pereira, who explains that he knew Hendricks’ father (he died just before Armistice Day, when Robert was just two) and invites him to stay at his island home off the coast of Toulon. Pereira is familiar with Hendricks’ acclaimed book and offers him a job collating his memoir, but over time the two develop a relationship in which they foster mutual help, without any progress on the older man’s book. Instead, at times the pair seem to be indulging in reciprocal counselling, each divesting himself of historical baggage. We discover, for example that Hendrick’s tragic war-time love affair, while recuperating from wounds sustained in battle in Italy, proved every bit as debilitating as the physical injuries. Yet, while both men are struggling with the burden of aspects of their respective pasts, their professional insights into the working of memory and emotions cannot shield them, but they are able to bare their vulnerability and over time work towards a truce with their troubled consciences.
Along the way, the author provides much food for thought for the reader and suggests limitations for rationality in the life of men. Love, Hendricks asserts has similarities to drug addiction. It is the “only emotion we granted the power to change our lives; no other feeling – if by ‘feeling’ we meant the release of unruly chemicals in the brain – was allowed to sit in judgement bedside our reason and our intellect.” Moreover, Pereira argues that we cannot necessarily rely on the mercurial nature of human memory either, since “a man’s life is not made up of things that happened, but by his memory of them and the way in which he remembers.” Our capacity to repress memories and fashion self-protection is fascinating, but for the two central characters it seems likely that a diagnosis of PTSD would offer the most compelling explanation in contemporary psychiatry. Still, the reshaping of the men’s respective burdens to something more bearable is an interesting journey and perhaps reinforces the notion that only at our most vulnerable, at our most human, can we be truly alive and know that our heart is beating. This is not my favourite book from Faulks, but worth the effort and I think may bear re-reading for some of the subtle nuances.