Where My Heart Used to Beat by Sebastian Faulks, book review: The theme is loss – of innocence, trust and humanity

In his new novel, the 'Birdsong' author once again explores the atrocities of war
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Hutchinson, £20. » Order at the discounted price of £16.50 inc. p&p from the Independent Bookshop

There are bits missing from Robert Hendricks. And not just because he has been in a war. He is in his early sixties but has no wife, no children, no friends, not even any colleagues when the book begins, in 1980. He does have a dog, which he frequently leaves with his cleaner, but takes for walks whenever he is back in his London flat.

Hendricks is a psychiatrist, one who believes that neuroscience can answer all the questions of emotion, mental disturbance and memory, even if it hasn't done so yet. And this is a deliberate paradox, since his own actions are dictated by the losses and betrayals he has experienced.

His father died in the First World War and we don't find out the circumstances until the very last pages. But Hendricks' journey to that revelation comes through a quite tortuous plot set-up.

He receives a letter from Alexander Pereira, an ancient French neurologist, who has admired Hendricks's single book, The Chosen Few, and invites him to his island home. This is ostensibly for Hendricks to discuss becoming Pereira's literary executor, but he also reveals that he was Hendricks's father's commanding officer and hints at memorabilia he can share with his guest.

Hendricks goes, of course, and while Dr Pereira drip-feeds him information about one war, he releases a flood about his own experiences in another.

He served and was wounded in Tunis – though that summary too is not quite what it seems – and was then at Anzio in Italy. There, while recuperating on a prolonged leave, he meets and falls in love with Luisa. Her betrayal, in a Casablanca-type plot twist, has blocked him from any further deep attachment in his emotionally arid life.

Faulks certainly doesn't set out to endear Hendricks to a female reader. The novel begins with him hiring a hooker in a New York flat and women aged respectively 25 and 38 are referred to as "girls." There is a vanity, which might not be entirely deliberate, in a man of his early sixties saying, "I was lucky to suffer few of the indignities of middle age [sic] beer belly, stiff knee or hair loss." (Sebastian Faulks is 62). And both those "girls" suggest to Hendricks that they should make love.

The book is told in a series of flashbacks, confessions, reminiscences, which reflect both Hendricks's and Pereira's ideas on memory.

The theme is loss – of innocence, of trust, and worse of all, any belief in humanity. This last is a rational reaction to seeing – and committing – the atrocities of war. It means that after 1944, Hendricks leads his life as an automaton, emotionally frozen but still striving to effect, if not cures, then improvements for his psychiatric patients.

Hendricks' own rehabilitation comes from a curious mixture of facing facts and attempting to retrieve lost Edens. He buys his childhood home and turns it into a therapeutic community; he meets Luisa again, after making no attempt to find her in the intervening 36 years.

He has been doomed, or self-sentenced, to solitude; Hendricks is an eternal transient lodger in places that don't belong to him and where he doesn't belong. But in his search for authenticity, he finally finds a sort of exhausted equilibrium. Not quite time regained but perhaps heartbeat re-located.

Mary Hoffman runs the History Girls blog: the-history-girls.blogspot.com