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Human Traces

3.6  ·  Rating Details ·  3,071 Ratings  ·  262 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
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Paperback, 793 pages
Published July 6th 2006 by Vintage (first published August 29th 2005)
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Maciek
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
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Judy Croome
Mar 30, 2011 Judy Croome rated it did not like it
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
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Katie Schmid
Mar 28, 2009 Katie Schmid rated it it was ok
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 ...more
Catherine
Feb 14, 2010 Catherine rated it it was amazing
Shelves: bookcrossing, own
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
Jane
Jun 13, 2011 Jane rated it it was amazing
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
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Angela Herd
Feb 03, 2013 Angela Herd rated it really liked it
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) ...more
Alex
Nov 03, 2011 Alex rated it it was amazing
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
Amelia
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
Paul
Jun 17, 2011 Paul rated it really liked it
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
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Louise Brown
Jul 22, 2007 Louise Brown rated it liked it
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.
Sue
Aug 09, 2014 Sue rated it really liked it
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
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Amena
Feb 07, 2016 Amena rated it liked it
Maybe 3.5 stars? It could have been a whopping 5 stars if only it didn't have so much detail and stuff about medicine and mental health etc etc. It becomes very laborious reading after a while. Had high hopes for this after adoring Charlotte Gray. But alas. what to do. I feel annoyed and let down because Faulks made me fall in love with the characters and feel for them. Then he takes it away by stuff that does not need to be there. I wanted more about Olivier. I loved the bits relating to him, ...more
LindyLouMac
May 01, 2010 LindyLouMac rated it it was amazing
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
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Lisa
Sep 26, 2015 Lisa rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Lisa by: Lurline
Shelves: britain, c21st
Human Traces is a strange book: I was torn between admiring it very much and wishing it would hurry up and end so that I could read something else.

It’s a long book at 608 pages in the edition I read, but long books are usually no problem, especially not if they are written in the style of the traditional 19th century novel. I grew up on the 19th century novel, and I like its certainties and its style, especially for comfort reading. Faulks has recreated this style almost as if he had travelled i
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Ron
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 ...more
Riff
Aug 25, 2010 Riff rated it it was ok
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 ...more
Debbie Robson
Apr 24, 2010 Debbie Robson rated it really liked it
This book was surprisingly a faster read than I expected considering the subject matter and the size. Faulks is now one of my favourite writers and I intend to go back and read all of his novels that I've missed. It is staggering to think of the amount of research needed to write this book. The history of the study of madness, as Faulks so brilliant depicts, is a long convoluted one with some doctors lost in the mire of false diagnosises and others completely "off base" and of course it takes ...more
Jo Bennie
Nov 30, 2014 Jo Bennie rated it it was amazing
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
Inna
Jul 06, 2009 Inna rated it it was ok
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
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Derek Bridge
Nov 18, 2012 Derek Bridge rated it it was amazing
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
Annalee
Jun 10, 2010 Annalee rated it liked it
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
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Laura
Jan 24, 2009 Laura rated it did not like it
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
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Andrew C.
Jun 11, 2014 Andrew C. rated it liked it
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
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Hannah Young
Jan 07, 2016 Hannah Young marked it as abandoned
Recommends it for: No one. Ever.
Shelves: fiction
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.
Tanya
Jun 24, 2016 Tanya rated it it was ok
Unnecessarily detailed and tedious in parts. Takes far to long to reach a point that by the time you've got the gist of what's going on, you've lost the will to live. Still, an interesting read on the histories of psychology (albeit mostly fictitious). Wouldn't read again. Let's hope this is never made into some dead-in-the-water BBC costume drama.
Rachel
Jul 22, 2012 Rachel rated it really liked it
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.
Gill
May 15, 2012 Gill rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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...
Paul
Feb 10, 2013 Paul rated it it was amazing
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
Rachael O'sullivan
Feb 05, 2013 Rachael O'sullivan rated it it was amazing
Absolutely fantastic read
Julia
Aug 23, 2011 Julia rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
superb
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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 ...more
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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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