SEBASTIAN Faulks brilliantly explores the impact of warfare, both during and after the fighting, says Allan Massie
Where My Heart Used To Beat
Hutchinson, 325pp, £20
Sebastian Faulks’ new novel begins unattractively – deliberately so. The narrator, Dr Robert Hendricks, war-damaged late middle-aged English psychiatrist, summons a call-girl to a borrowed apartment in New York. Their encounter is unsatisfying. Back in London he finds an abusive message, apparently relating to this event, on his answer-phone. This is a bold opening. First person narrators may often be unreliable, but the reader will usually be invited to like them or at least sympathise with them. But Faulks has Hendricks first present himself in an unattractive light. There is something wrong with him, but we don’t know what it is.
There’s a letter waiting for him too. It comes from a very old man, Dr Pereira, who has been impressed by a book, The Chosen Few, which Hendricks wrote some years ago. He invites Hendricks to visit him in the island off Cannes where he lives, and, as bait, reveals that he served with Robert’s father, killed in the last weeks of the 1914-18 war. After some hesitation Hendricks accepts the invitation. Pereira, he learns, is himself a mind-doctor, interested primarily in the working of memory and consciousness. Faulks has always been interested in such things, explored in depth in his novel Human Traces.
His other subject has been war – Birdsong being his most popular novel – and a good part of this new book is concerned with Hendricks’s memories of conflict, first serving with the British Expeditionary Force in 1940 and being evacuated from Dunkirk, then with the Anzio landing and the Italian campaign. This is very well done. Faulks’ accounts of action are convincing; he doesn’t shield the reader from the horrors of war while also at the same time paying tribute to the comradeship it engenders. No doubt much of his treatment of battle is the fruit of diligent research but it is also a work of sympathetic imagination. Yet, however detailed and lively his treatment of the experience of battle, Faulks is more concerned with its consequences for the survivors: how they find a way of living afterwards with the knowledge of themselves and of humanity which they have been compelled to acquire. Nothing in Hendricks’s post-war life can match the intensity of warfare – and he is never free from the awareness of the psychological damage it has inflicted on him and other survivors. This is at the heart of his conversations with Pereira who, burdened, we learn by even more horrific knowledge, has, we realise, set out to try to heal him. Likewise, in his work with the mentally ill – or those cruelly dismissed as simply mad, Hendricks has been trying to find a way to come to terms with his own experience.
Not all of that has been unpleasant. Convalescing from a wound, received in circumstances which are not what they seem at first, Hendricks has an affair with Luisa, an Italian girl met on a beach. She will be the love of his life, partly perhaps because the idyll is broken. Arguably his inability to form any happy subsequent relationship, and his recourse to prostitutes, are to be seen as a consequence, though this is perhaps a bit novelette-ish, a suspicion confirmed later in the book. There has to be something more magical in a relationship or love affair than one is offered here for the “only woman he ever loved” stuff to be convincing. Luisa remains a cardboard romantic heroine rather than being realised as a woman.
Faulks has always been an engaging and intelligent writer, ready to tackle ambitious themes. There is much to enjoy in this novel, as well as much to harrow you in the war scenes. The descriptions of Hendricks’s visits to Pereira’s island are charming, even if Pereira himself is something less than a credible character. The flashbacks to Hendricks’s country childhood and education are good, likewise the treatment of his professional life. Most impressive, however, is the way in which his initially unsympathetic, even dislikeable, character is gradually made to seem more acceptable. There is a particularly good scene in which, long after the war, he visits his former commanding officer and one is led to understand why he is regarded with affection and respect. That said, Hendricks is never free of self-pity, but, as Anthony Powell used to remark, a degree of self-pity is an almost invariable ingredient of any bestseller. It’s certainly common to many first person narratives.
The ending, revealing what actually happened to the father Hendricks never knew, may be read as an acceptable twist in the tale, but it is also perhaps an explanation that explains nothing, for it must be doubtful to what extent the fate of someone one never knew can account for much in a person’s life. Nevertheless, in the context of the novel, it is acceptable at least as matter for argument. And argument is something that Faulks always invites. He has always been a novelist who explores ideas and has the gift of marrying his intellectual interests to a good and often emotionally involving story. This new novel is one of his most engaging, intelligent, continuously interesting and well told. His admiring readership won’t be disappointed.