Human Traces, by Sebastian Faulks

A Freudian repression
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The Independent Culture

Human Traces is his most ambitious novel yet. It begins in 1870, when his two heroes are 16, and moves through the First World War. Geographically, the book spans England, France, Austria and Africa, with a foray to America's west coast. Intellectually, it attempts a history of the mind sciences and madness, starting with the outcast's hovel, chains and straw, then moving through the custodial and therapeutic asylums, the birth of psychiatry and something which seems to be - though, oddly, under a different name - psychoanalysis. Through a Darwinian line, it also encompasses a kind of evolutionary psychology.

Jacques Rebière, whose mother is lost to the mists of his early infancy, is the brilliant son of a miserly Breton father, just out of the peasantry. His elder brother Olivier hears voices which can make him erupt into inexplicable violence. He has spent time in an asylum, and at the book's beginning lives in squalor in the shed. Only Jacques is attentive to him: Olivier is his one link to his mother. It is because of his mad brother, and through the patronage of a local curé, that Jacques dedicates his life to medicine and to uncovering the workings of the human mind.

Thomas Midwinter, the second hero, is a dreaming Lancashire lad, poised for Cambridge. He loves Shakespeare, poetry, and his older sister Sonia, who advises on medicine as a career rather than his father's grain business. Thomas, too, hears voices. The experience helps him consolidate his later theory that this "ability" - though designated as one of the characteristics of schizophrenia - is one of the evolutionary steps in making humans just that.

When Sonia, trapped in a less than happy marriage, travels to Deauville with her husband, she urges Thomas to come along. Here he meets Jacques. The two youths form a bond and determine to solve the riddles of the mind together. Their twosome is most often overseen and abetted by Sonia, who eventually becomes Jacques's wife and an active partner in the clinic-asylum they set up in the Austrian hills.

Here, Thomas looks after the public patients suffering from dementia praecox, among whom is Olivier. Jacques, meanwhile, takes on the fee-paying hysterics. He has trained in Paris under Charcot, that Napoleon of the mind, but also with Janet and Bernheim, two other practitioners of hypnotism as research tool and therapy.

Thomas's dream about his father reveals the importance that interpreting dreams can have in treatment. Jacques's analysis of a Viennese woman patient and the paper he writes about her, underlining the sexual base of her symptoms, results in a rift with Thomas, who spots that her problems have a more pragmatic physical cause. He also falls in love with this Kitty and proceeds to enact the sex that he refuses in Jacques's theory.

All this has its fascination, as do the psychiatric sources. But there are difficulties. History in a novel is far less unwieldy than the history of ideas. Faulks's quest for the truth of the mind's workings forces him into great tracts of explanatory prose, not to mention two lectures by Charcot. These, at least, are inherently theatrical. Potted moments from other thinkers are less so. Sometimes you wish the research had been more fully transformed into character or experience, and that there were less back-dating of speculative material from evolutionary psychiatry - which is where Thomas, at once empirical and visionary, heads.

There is a second problem. As a form, the novel has an aptitude for realism. Disbelief is suspended almost too easily. So with history, unless the novelist signals a radical departure (an almighty hypothetical à la Philip Roth's The Plot Against America), a little care needs to be taken in the uses made of the real.

Writing Freud out of a history of the mind sciences may be a desire that many share, but it simply ain't the case. Faulks's choices here are odd and make one distrust the narrative. Why name all the famous "really-existing" mind doctors of the time except Freud, only to invent a character who spouts Freud's core ideas?

Jacques even does research on eels and writes a look-alike Freudian case history, which Thomas accuses of much the same fabrication that Freud's detractors have levelled at him.

Surely characters as ambitious as Faulks's two creations would have trundled off to Vienna to hear Freud (not Fliess!), or at least exchanged a few letters? The world of mind-doctors was hardly vast.

For all the interest of its theoretical matter, it is the "human traces" of mad Olivier that are most gripping in this novel. And, of course, Faulks's women, who endure.

Lisa Appignanesi's novel 'The Memory Man' is published by Arcadia; she is the co-author of 'Freud's Women' (Phoenix)