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Human Traces

3.64  ·  Rating details ·  4,123 ratings  ·  340 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 3.64  · 
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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: own, bookcrossing
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
James Folan
Cardboard 19th-century psychiatric folk plod through 600 pages of stodgy research.
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
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.
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.
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
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
Nov 20, 2007 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: all interested in the history of psychology and psychiatry.
(I'd give this 3½ stars if I could)
Faulks loves the pre-WW1- and WW1-era, always researches his topics well, and creates very believable characters.
All of his books could be shortened by about a third, though, and this is certainly no exception.

In Human Traces, two friends decide to devote their life to the study of and possible cure to mental illnesses.
We follow the two during medical training, work in an asylum (which is more or less just storage) and as they eventually set up their own insti
Debbie Robson
Mar 09, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 it ...more
Jo Bennie
Nov 30, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Jul 06, 2009 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
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
Derek Bridge
Nov 18, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
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
Jason Wilson
Jan 26, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The year after Darwin publishes origin of species two boys are born , one in England one in France, who will make their name together in the new field of psychiatric medicine . This is a rich and fascinating novel taking in the early days of psychology and psychiatry , their relation to the emergent theory if evolution , and the link between madness and fundamental humanity .

There are a few cliches in the storytelling - a doctor patient love affair, the loss of a son in the Great War ( which I
Jan 24, 2009 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
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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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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“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.” 3 likes
“We have lived too closely, been through too much. I will not leave you. I cannot, any more than I can leave myself.” 2 likes
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