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Human Traces

(Austrian Trilogy #1)

3.66  ·  Rating details ·  4,430 ratings  ·  367 reviews
Jacques Rebière and Thomas Midwinter, both sixteen when the story starts in 1876, come from different countries and contrasting families. They are united by an ambition to understand how the mind works and whether madness is the price we pay for being human.
As psychiatrists, their quest takes them from the squalor of the Victorian lunatic asylum to the crowded lecture hal
Paperback, 800 pages
Published July 6th 2006 by Vintage (first published August 29th 2005)
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Kathryn Mattern Yes, I think this is an excellent - if difficult - read. The subject matter can be at times disturbing, eg descriptions of a 19th century British 'asy…moreYes, I think this is an excellent - if difficult - read. The subject matter can be at times disturbing, eg descriptions of a 19th century British 'asylum' for the insane, originally envisioned as a haven for the mentally ill. But aside from the seriousness of the theme (psychiatry), the novel is well-written, character development is good, and you learn a lot, conveyed through the eyes of the main character. (less)
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Average rating 3.66  · 
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Judy Croome
Mar 30, 2011 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
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
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
Feb 14, 2010 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Jun 17, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Gumble's Yard - Golden Reviewer
Story of two men from around 1870 to 1920 - Jacques Rebiere (an unschooled but bright Breton from a poor, rural background, haunted by the death of his mother at his birth and determined to find a cure for his mad brother Oliver - not least so he can tell him more of their mother - with the sponsorship of a local priest he studies medicine) and Thomas Midwinter (youngest son of a comfortable but struggling English family and interested in literature, whose sister Sonia – initially married to an ...more
Aug 25, 2010 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
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
Jonathan Pool
Sebastian Faulks is a prolific writer, and Human Traces unmistakably comes from his stable of works. The brutality and horror of trench warfare (a Faulks staple), and a raw and raunchy, illicit, love affair are duly incorporated in the book. Its pure historical fiction, set between 1866 and 1920, as Faulks delves into the vigorous, and emerging debates and research taking place among neurologists and psychiatrists trying to determine causes of, and cures for, mental health ailments. Its a subjec ...more
Thomas Edmund
Jul 01, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
So I loved the heck out of Human Traces but I can recognize that the book won't be for all. The book is long, to reflect the biographical nature of it, but without a real of literary payoff, the subject matter is rather specific, and generally the story meanders (like life) again a reflection of the life story aspect.

The tale follows two men, Thomas and Jacques, who spend their professional lives focused on insanity, Thomas' approach is ever-medical and neurological and Jacques is a consummate p
May 03, 2020 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
I wanted to love this book, but by god it became hard going. From the first hundred pages it would get 4 stars.... The two main characters introduced as children at the beginning share a passion for striving to understand the human mind and mental illness. What follows is there life story. But by 300 pages in, the characters have become increasing dislikable. I had to give up by page 350 as it just seemed to stop progressing, after many pages of notes about a patient where Jacques (one of the ma ...more
Feb 21, 2007 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Louise Brown
Jul 16, 2007 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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. ...more
Angela Herd
Jan 26, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Feb 07, 2019 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
The final four pages of this book almost make up for the detours into the history of psychiatry. Lots to think about in this long and heavy book. Where was the editor? We continue to ask the same questions about the treatment and cure of mental illness. We are still floundering. Years from now we will look back at the accepted best practice for schizophrenia and shake our heads asking can you believe that was considered helpful. Perhaps it is enough, as one patient reminded Thomas, to help those ...more
Violet Parker
I struggled with this book a little. A nice story but a bit too in depth making me have to work at what i was reading.
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
Aug 09, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 latte
Jan 14, 2016 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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, h ...more
Oct 16, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A remarkable and challenging novel. Ambitious and expansive, Faulks accurately deals with the development of neurology during the late 19th and early 20th centuries through his two utterly dedicated practitioners, Thomas Midwinter and Jacques Rebiere. We are taken from the worst practices of Victorian asylums to the enlightened treatment of patients in their Swiss Clinic. But; the science is in its infancy, mistakes are made and tensions arise. The mysteries of what makes us human simply cannot ...more
If you like Medicine and Psychology, this is the book for you. I personally devour every chapter of this book as I learned how the methods of dealing with Mental Illness have been evolved over the years and what a long journey it has taken.
James Folan
Cardboard 19th-century psychiatric folk plod through 600 pages of stodgy research.
Yvan De
Apr 28, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
It is a challenge to read your way through it, but it is very rewarding to do so.
Feb 28, 2021 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Interesting view.
Simon Howard
Apr 18, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I picked up this 2005 novel as it was recommended by my friend and esteemed work colleague Julie. In short: I loved it.

I see from both Goodreads and newspaper reviews that this novel is not universally liked but it was right up my street. It follows the lives of two doctors, from their childhoods through their careers as specialists in psychiatry to their old age. They set up a clinic together despite developing contrasting theories as to the causes of and treatments for mental illness, and thei

Started off so well, with the two young doctors friendship dominating the first half. They and their family’s relationship dominated the start and I did get very involved and was desperate to see how the characters and novel would develop. I only wish SB had kept it that way as it was intermingled with such a lot of long medical talk and unknown medical descriptions. It almost became two novels in one. Disappointed.
Jun 22, 2021 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The first thing to say about this book was that it is very long, with nearly 800 pages to get through. Sometimes those pages were littered with extremely detailed recounts of lectures on the ins and outs of the brain and psychology, which to someone who has minimal interest or knowledge in such things may be a tad excessive. I for one was recommended this book because of my interest in the way the mind works, and I did find a lot of the more scientific aspects of the book very intriguing, howeve ...more
Anne Taylor
I wanted to love this book - there are so many boxes it ticks for me. But there are many, many problems with this novel. I was invested in the two main characters, Thomas and Jacques - and their quest to understand the human brain, what makes us human. Set in the late 1800s/early 1900s, at a time when there was so much to discover, it unfolds slowly and quickly at the same time. But there are so many places where it just loses its way (the construction of the damn railway and the African expedit ...more
Apr 11, 2010 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Sep 24, 2015 rated it liked it
Recommended to Lisa by: Lurline
Shelves: c21st, britain
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
Lydia Smith
Jul 07, 2021 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
You can watch my full review of this great book on YouTube here:
‘Human Traces’ follows three main characters through their lives from children and young adults, into their adventures and achievements of adulthood, and then into old age with its wisdom and disappointments, with lots of nice detail throughout that kept the story enjoyable. It was not the most thrilling book I’ve ever read although the characters seemed solid, if a bit convenient. The book is convincing
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
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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

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Austrian Trilogy (2 books)
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