Human Traces, by Sebastian Faulks

Human Traces is a big, sprawling, compelling novel set in 19th-century England and Europe. It’s the story of two doctors who are pioneers in the study of the human mind — back in the era when psychology, psychiatry and neurology were still poorly understood as disciplines and much of what went on in the brain was simply mysterious.

The story covers not only the professional careers of these two men, but also their private lives, their marriages, and the friendship that unites them. Fascinating speculations about mental illness and the nature of consciousness are interwoven into a realistic and believable human drama that kept me turning pages right to the end … and there were over 700 pages, so that was a lot of turning!

Faulks expects a lot of his readers. Lectures and papers on fairly intricate topics are not simply summarized for easy skimming, but reproduced in their entirety — one key lecture takes up twelve pages. If you’re not interested in the subject matter of how doctors and scientists understood the problem of mental illness over a hundred years ago, the story and characters may not be enough to keep you moving forward, but if (like me) you are intrigued by the topic, you’ll be interested to find it wrapped up in such a compelling story.

I had quibbles with the ending, which I found disappointing, but in general I found this a novel that required time and thought, but rewarded both generously.

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Filed under Fiction -- historical

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