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Human Traces

3.57 of 5 stars 3.57  ·  rating details  ·  2,579 ratings  ·  219 reviews
As young boys both Jacques Rebière and Thomas Midwinter become fascinated with trying to understand the human mind. As psychiatrists, their quest takes them from the squalor of the Victorian lunatic asylum to the crowded lecture halls of the renowned Professor Charcot in Paris; from the heights of the Sierra Madre in California to the plains of unexplored Africa.

As the con
Paperback, 793 pages
Published July 6th 2006 by Vintage (first published August 29th 2005)
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Human Traces is a a huge and ambitious novel, which aims to explore the development of psychiatry, psychoanalysis and neurology in the late 19th and early 20th century. It took Sebastian Faulks five years to write, and involved spending hundreds of hours on research and creating charts and timelines to keep track of events and characters.

The novel begins in the 1876, with the introduction of the two protagonists - Jacques Rebiere and Thomas Midwinter. They are both 16 years old, and although se
Angst. The sea. Absent parents. Madness. The development of psychiatry and neurology in the latter part of the 19th century. Great, provocative subject matter. And yet, with such interesting material, Faulks manages to create the sloggiest slog of a book that ever needed to be slogged through. It was like historical fiction at its worst: the characters were a flimsy prop used to explore the themes of madness and mad doctoring. Faulks wrote much more interestingly and passionately about the theor ...more
Judy Croome
A difficult book to rate and review. Parts of it were sublime; the rest tedious and didactic. If it had been 250 pages shorter it would have been outstanding. As it stands, the beginning (full of hope) and the end (full of despair) were worth the read. I cried twice in this book: at the beauty of the opening pages and the pathos of the closing pages. It's a pity that the middle was such heavy going.

Obviously authors who've already made their name are allowed to ignore basic writing rules such as
The amount of research Sebastian Faulks clearly does into his chosen subject matter leaves many, if not most, authors in the dust. This gives his writing a certain intelligence and a well-informed feel, but it does also have its flaws. Chiefly, that his books are over long. I felt this with Birdsong and again here with Human Traces. Don't get me wrong, the subject matter was fascinating - and admittedly horrifying in places - but by the time I got to page 400 my interest had largely died and I d ...more
This is an absolutely fascinating book that weaves medicine, travel, psychology, paeleo-anthropology, religion, evolution, history, literature - and probably a few more things besides - into the tale of the sometimes strained relationships between two fallible people from very different backgrounds. Thomas' theory to explain the existence and continuation of the apparantly maladaptive trait of hearing voices is a masterly synthesis that is intriguingly credible: even though I know that it would ...more
i was stuck in the airport in dublin waiting for my flight to new york, without any reading material (the horror!!). thus, i picked this out of the meager selections the airport store had. they were featuring Faulks, as an Irish British author. i was skeptical (i hadn't ever heard of him before). but i loved this book -- partially because i like complex philosophical/psychological/scientific ruminations, and this book had plenty of that. it's as if he was trying to answer the question of "what i ...more
In my opinion, Sebastian Faulks is right up there with the best of our writers. He studied English at Cambridge. He worked as a features writer for The Telegraph papers before becoming Deputy Editor of The Independant on Sunday. This is the third novel of his I have read. Birdsong was excellent and Charlotte Gray very good, but for me Human Traces is superior.

Is the writing any better in this novel? Mr Faulks writes beautifully throughout all three of these books.

Is it the subject matter? There
Angela Herd
I'm on page 638 of 787 of Human Traces: Really enjoying this book, a fictional story based around fact and the early stages of attempts to understand mental illness and psychosis; the beginnings of psychiatry and psychology. It offers a fascinating, insightful, as well as beautifully-articulated understanding of the origins of such 'illnesses', drawing together various schools of thought and much of the scientific theory we have come to understand as providing the most sensible (and sensical) ex ...more
On the whole I enjoyed this; it was a wide scope, from the 1860s to the 1920s and ranges across Europe the US and Africa. It tells the story of two men, Thomas Midwinter and Jacques Rebiere and their dreams of working out how the human mind functions and solving the problem of madness. There are lengthy descriptions of nineteenth century psychiatry and the development of some modern ideas with the theory of evolution and the human condition thrown in.
The book is at its strongest when dealing wi
A slow, academic but impressively ambitious novel with meticulous research into the story of 19th century psychiatry. This is a sweeping 2-generation saga, mostly set in Europe, about 2 friends who at the turn of the century pursue psychiatry (for different reasons) & become lifelong partners. Their quest is to understand madness, the evolution of the brain and what makes us human.
This story was not as compelling as 'Birdsong,' and it fact it got a little turgid in the middle. As with the l
Louise Brown
Jul 22, 2007 Louise Brown rated it 3 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: amateur psychiatrists
Great characters with captivating storylines and incredible backdrops from gruesome Victorian asylums to mountains of Switzerland to African deserts - but too educative to make an enjoyable and satisfying read. It reads like a deliberate attempt at the construction of a story around the history and theories of psychology, I'm not sure that characters or plot necessarily came first which is maybe why the book plods a little.
I was really looking forward to reading this book: highly recommended, by an author I enjoy and on a fascinating topic. The idea of two young Victorian psychiatrists [or alienists as they were called] meeting and forming a new method of treating insanity interested me greatly, and so I started the book with great anticipation. The female characters in the story were even more interesting, Sonia with her eye for organisation, and those that turned from being patients to being part of the family a ...more
Oh dear. This is one of the most unfortunate books I've read in quite some time. Sebastian Faulks has a name in popular historical fiction and Human Traces, which seemed to promise a fascinating tale of two 19th century pioneers of psychiatry - a subject I have a strong interest in - gave me high hopes for a quality read. It is clear that Faulks is a functional writer who knows how to construct a novel, but while the subject has obviously been meticulously researched I found the prose somewhat b ...more
When I started reading 'Human Traces' for the first fifty pages I was unsure it was going to appeal to me. Once the introductions to the two protagonists had been made and the author went on to describe their first meeting it was starting to work for me.

The first protagonist we meet is Jacques Rebiere, a farmers son from Brittany with an interest in science and a love for his mentally disturbed brother Olivier. Olivier is treated like an animal by the rest of his family, only Jacques seems to ha
Derek Bridge
Human Traces sits alongside Birdsong as one of Faulks's masterpieces. The backdrop are the events of the last half of the 19th century and first half of the twentieth - not just the First World War, but more especially developments in science, evolution, medicine, psychiatry and psychology. The intense relationship between the two main characters is soured over a fundamental disagreement - the hubris of the worst excesses of Freudian psychobabble against the groundedness of neuropsychology. But ...more
At first, I was indulged with the book. I was wondering about the future of Jacques and Thomas. What was wrong with Jacques' brother? How was their friendship going to be like? Somehow, in the beginning, I thought, "Hey this should be a good story. I like Medicine, I might like this."
I was not even halfway when I realize, "This is going to be another story that will be in my shelf for the next few months stuck two hundred pages till the end." Indeed, that was true. I read it when I could, stopp
The story of two pioneering 'alienists' struggling to find a cure for 'madness' in the 19th century was at most times enjoyable and enlightening, though sometimes a bit hard going.

I preferred the parts of the book that dealt with the personal lives of the two main characters, their personal relationships, families and other loved ones. The book covers quite a long span, from their childhood to old age, I do love a good saga!

Less enjoyable were the long parts detailing what might or might not be
This could have been a fantastic book. A brilliant beginning to what promised to be an interesting story but it never happened. The two main characters were interesting enough to have carried a story and, when Faulks allowed them to do so, it was as good as anything he's written.

However, huge chunks read like an outdated psychology text book and added nothing to the narrative. The love affair between one of the characters and his wife was odd in that he saw her in the corridor one day and was vi
Andrew C.
Faulks is one of the best novelists I have ever read. This is a hard one to score... as talented as he is, Human Traces gets bogged down under the weight of his research, and though it contains some awesome writing it is also too clunky and awkward for long segments, including a 20-30 page chunk of pure medical speak. Too much, it needed some editing and polishing!

Strangely enough it makes me want to read more Faulks. This was a great experiment that almost worked - impressive novel but I will n
Jo Bennie
Nov 30, 2014 Jo Bennie rated it 5 of 5 stars
Shelves: f
I was tentative beginning this book because I so loved Engleby, the first book by Faulks I read, and was afraid I would be disappointed. I wasn't. In Human Traces Faulks traces the early history of psychiatry from the alienists of the late 1900s through to the end of the first world war, but does so through the lives of two extraordinary men, Englishman Thomas and Breton Jacques driven by personal history and their own youthful intelligence and fire to understand how the mind works and to solve ...more
Hannah Young
Jan 04, 2015 Hannah Young rated it 1 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: No one. Ever.
Shelves: fiction, abandoned
I found this book slow-moving and, in parts, dull meaning this novel actually took me several weeks to finish, and I consequently got bored with the plot fairly quickly. However, I loved the characters in the story, and Sebastian Faulks' style of writing made them develop into real, 3D human beings, really connecting them with the reader making 'Human Traces' an emotionally involving and thought provoking read.
Geoff Wooldridge
This was an ambitious book in its scale and subject matter which, in my opinion, deed not completely succeed in fulfilling it ambitions. I certainly didn't enjoy it as much as Faulks' Bird Song, which ranks very highly on my list of favourite books.

Human Traces is the story of Thomas Midwinter and Jacques Rebiere, English and French respectively, who meet in the late 19th century as young enthusiastic men with an interest in the study of the human mind. Jacques, in particular, is motivated by th
A very long novel that combines a family saga with an history of psychiatry and psychology at the end of the 19th/beginning of the 20th century. I am no historian of those disciplines and so I am unable to say whether the treatments given by the two protagonists was eventually discarded or not. However, it is significant that while a large part of the novel is set in Austria the names of Freud and Jung are never spoken and they are only referred to passim in rather derogatory terms. I had expect ...more
Beautifully characterised with brilliant period detail (particularly detail of early psychiatry!). In many ways, not that much happens in this novel. And everything happens. Loved it.
Anyone interested in the development of psychiatry and psychology as well as enjoying a strong story line should read this book - fascinating, I wished it would keep going...
I was drawn first to Faulks's war novels, but this book is by far the best thing of his I have read. It is wonderful
James Folan
Cardboard 19th-century psychiatric folk plod through 600 pages of stodgy research.
Micelle Coetsee
Jun 27, 2015 Micelle Coetsee rated it 2 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: Persons interested in history and social sciences
Shelves: world-literature
Definition of trace: “A very small quantity, especially one too small to be accurately measured; a mark, object, or other indication of the existence or passing of something.”
I was left feeling ambivalent about my reading experience of this work. As academic reading it was a satisfactory experience; in seeking more of the individual narratives, disappointing.
If Faulks intended to show the seemingly insignificance of the individual in the the greater scheme of human life, as the title suggests, h
Yikes, this is a hard book to review. It's good, bad and everything in between.
The story follows the lives of Jacques Rebière and Thomas Midwinter, two young men who want to change the world of the mad, to find cures, to make a difference to people. This is their story.
There's a lot in this book: history of psychology (so much history...a bit heavy on the history), various & interesting locations (England, Paris, Switzerland, Africa, America).
But the story falls apart a bit with the charac
Tiffany Williams

I adored this book. I read it over three weeks, which helped a lot with the drier, research-heavy passages, but also in realising the epic scale of the whole thing.

Thomas and Jacques, in considering where madness comes from, find themselves up against the greater question of why we as a species have been endowed with this extraordinary mental capacity, and if it's even worth having. There are two separate passages, when they are both respectively travelling alone after a career plateau,
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Sebastian Faulks was born in 1953, and grew up in Newbury, the son of a judge and a repertory actress. He attended Wellington College and studied at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, although he didn’t enjoy attending either institution. Cambridge in the 70s was still quite male-dominated, and he says that you had to cycle about 5 miles to meet a girl. He was the first literary editor of “The Independe ...more
More about Sebastian Faulks...
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“So the Bible is not so sad in the end?’ ‘Yes, it is the saddest book in the world. We are asked to believe that God has played an infantile trick on us: he has made himself unobservable, as an eternal test of “faith”. What I read, though, is the story of a species cursed by gifts and delusions that it cannot understand. I read of exile, abandonment and the terrible grief of beings who have lost something real – not of a people being put to a childish test, but of those who have lost their guide and parent, friend and only governing instructor and are left to wander in the silent darkness for all eternity. Imagine. And that is why all religion is about absence. Because once, the gods were there. And that is why all poetry and music strike us with this awful longing for what once was ours – because it begins in regions of the brain where once the gods made themselves heard.” 0 likes
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