Book Reviews

Human Traces by Sebastian Faulks

What does it mean to be human? Is madness the price we pay for it? Sebastian Faulks explores this fragile thread that connects human consciousness with the depravity of the mind in his novel, Human Traces.

What does it mean to be human? Is madness the price we pay for it? Sebastian Faulks explores this fragile thread that connects human consciousness with the depravity of the mind in his novel, Human Traces.


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Human Traces is a narrative on sanity and what it means to be human. In the eighth book he’s written, and one which took him five years to complete, Sebastian Faulks explores the development of psychiatry, psychoanalysis and neurology in the late 19th and the early 20th century. It is the characterisation and commentary on mental illness back in the day when very little was known about such things. What Faulks does, with great storytelling, is to delve into the history of mental illness and the medical ideas that were being developed during this time.

We are introduced to two sixteen-year-old boys in 1876; Jacques Rebière and Thomas Midwinter, one boy living in France, the other in England. From the rural poverty of Brittany, comes Jacques’ voice and his desire to understand madness. He wants to cure his brother Olivier of the insanity that plagues him, the name of which is not known at the time, and which later we understand to be schizophrenia. He is appalled at the condition Olivier is in, locked in a stable, among the pigs, reduced to living in a way less than human. Jacques is forced to watch his brother, once a loving and doting sibling, struggle with his demons. He sees in Olivier the only chance to get to know their mother; she’d died shortly after giving birth to Jacques. Their father never speaks about her, so, the only way for Jacques to get to know her is to dig into Olivier’s memories, which for the time being are inaccessible. Dissecting frogs is all he can do as a child, but this is the beginning of his journey to find the meeting point of thought and flesh. In the 1870s, the process of mapping the human mind has just barely begun. What Jacques faces is not just a childhood dream. He stands at the dawn of a new branch of science. Meanwhile, Thomas’ story begins in England, with a desire to study literature. He believes it allows for a greater understanding of humanity. However, his dreams are thwarted by his father. It is his sister, Sonia, who advises he study medicine instead, something that will allow him to understand the nature of humanity just as he wants to, and give him a respectable income too, something that would please his father who is in financial straits.

It is only a couple of years later, when the two men meet each other at Deauville, that an instant and intimate attraction begins between the two. Separated by countries, language and even social status, both the boys discover a common fascination in the workings of the human mind. Thus begins a friendship of a lifetime. Their common dream, of understanding how humans become human, takes them from the squalor of a Victorian lunatic asylum to the plains of unexplored Africa, from the Austrian Schloss where they set up their psychiatric clinic to the Californian mountains. As they both deal with their patients and further their academic study, each begins to form a different hypothesis regarding madness. Jacques believes that traumatic experiences from one’s past are the cause of madness. Thomas, on the other hand, is a naturalist, believing that mental problems have genetic roots. Through his characters, Faulks delves into a very real struggle of that age, the struggle to distinguish between organic diseases and behavioural problems.

And then we have Sonia, a character that brings sanity to the lives of both Thomas and Jacques. She is a woman trapped in a loveless marriage which was more of a business deal and she has little voice of her own.

“It is not your place to imagine, it is your place to be with your husband.”

Sonia is a dutiful wife and yet there is a defiance in her. From dipping into the sea to take a swim, something no married lady of the age would dare to do, to standing up for herself in the midst of choices her husband and father make for her, Sonia exhibits a great strength of character.

Sonia rises from the injustice of her failed marriage to find love in her brother’s friend, Jacques. It is from this point forth that she becomes the commonality between the two, and becomes greatly instrumental in their friendship and future together.


Human Traces is not just a novel about the history of madness and the struggle of mad-doctors in the early days of the discipline. It is also an examination of relationships. Thomas’ and Jacques’ friendship, one which played a central role in determining their careers, is jeopardised by the arrival of a new patient at the Austrian sanitarium, a Fraulein Katharina Von A. An enigmatic patient in the start, interest in the Fraulein begins to get intense only after Jacques writes up his clinical observation of her. He gives his paper, that details his procedure of diagnosis and his analysis on what the cause of her illness is, to Thomas for his feedback. And this is where the story turns. Jacques believes that the Fraulein’s physical troubles stem from her past issues which are sexual in nature. He writes at length of every sexual fantasy she has harboured and links it to her present complaints. Thomas realises that Jacques has gotten it all wrong, and that he has misdiagnosed the Fraulein. With a great urgency, and keeping it secret from Jacques, Thomas rushes the Fraulein to a hospital and gets her a surgery, in the absence of which her situation might have worsened and caused damage to both the men’s careers and broken down the institution that the two had spent their lives creating.

Thus begins a strange animosity between the friends. A distance develops. Jacques has been wrong. Thomas fixes it for him. There is a sense of defeat in the former, a sense of pride that replaces the initial jealousy in the latter. The two continue to live under the roof of the same Schloss in unspoken hostility; neither willing to talk to the other and even avoiding each other. Thomas, a bit of Shakespeare leaking through his speech, declares his attraction to the Fraulein, and after a brief romance, the two are married. Thomas and Jacques continue their family lives, both begetting children and for a while, the novel settles into a lull. And then Olivier’s character is resurrected. Olivier’s only hope for deliverance is treatment at the hands of his brother’s friend. And yet, the voices in his head don’t leave him. So it is, with great courage that he decides to escape them, and in a heart-wrenching scene, jumps off a cliff where a new sanitarium was being built by Thomas and Jacques. The beginnings of the new place, previously filled with the hope of success, is now marred by a heartbreaking loss.

There are three other characters in the novel worth mentioning. The first is Daisy, an inmate at the British asylum where Thomas was first a doctor. Sneaking out on a dinner with him and making it back without being noticed by jumping over compound walls, is almost a harbinger of a romantic or at least a forbidden, secret relationship. Alas, Faulks decides to not pursue that line of inquiry and leaves it at Thomas coming back for Daisy years later to get her released from the asylum and include her as part of the housekeeping staff at his Austrian clinic. Then there’s Mary, another inmate from Thomas’ first days as a doctor, who was enrolled by Thomas on her arrival and whose only “ailment” was that she was blind. Through the years, both Daisy and Mary form a close friendship and an unwavering trust develops between the main characters and these two previously labelled as “mentally ill”. And then, there’s Daniel, Jacques’ and Sonia’s son. From the trenches in the First World War, he finds his voice, trying to come to terms with the death of those he has come to recognise as friends in the battlefield.


Human Traces is vast in its scope, spanning three continents and several decades. It starts on a high. The hardships facing Jacques are overwhelming. He is a lone kid stuck in the middle of wanting to know but having no way of knowing who his mother was or what she might have been like. Thus is born a certain desperation in him. The description of a 19th-century British asylum for the insane, from Thomas’ point of view, is both disturbing and enlightening. For a long time in our history, any deviant behaviour was considered to be a battle between good and evil, a combination of divine and diabolical. Where our ancestors, who could hear voices in their heads, closer to gods? Did we lose this ability when we learnt to record our thoughts and developed our cognitive abilities? In early modern Europe, the responsibility of taking care of the lunatics rested with the family, something akin to what Olivier faced. Confinement was the norm for those considered potentially dangerous. By the mid-19th century, madhouses began to spring up. Restraint and harsh treatments were considered to help suppress the wild, animal emotions that madmen and madwomen exhibited. It was also around this time that madness began to be viewed as an organic, physical condition instead of a disease of the soul. Medicine began to specialise in madness. The rise of madhouses saw a greater involvement of the doctors. A model of moral treatment for the afflicted started developing by the end of the 18th century. As it began to get more academically established, the term “psychiatry” came into use in the 19th century. Faulks attempt at dissecting this history through the journey of his characters is commendable and is evident in the intense research he has done to craft his story.

Towards the middle of the book, the plot begins to drag. Extensive descriptions are to blame for this. Faulks has published two lectures by Charcot, making it a lengthy read. It would have been better if these lectures had been transformed into experiences or assimilated into the characters’ stories; the show, don’t tell approach. Sometimes, there is a thing as too much research and Faulks proves it in this book. The long academic discussion on the nature of mental illness can only be appealing to someone from that academic background. This is one of the flaws of the book. Then there is the matter of unnecessary elements that don’t really serve to add to the main story. While the subplot set in Africa still gives you matter to ponder over, the part set in California has little of substance. A very poignant scene from Africa comes to mind (even though it is a little misplaced in its relevance). Thomas, while on his journey through unmapped Africa, discovers a set of footprints that belong to a “family”. To call it a family is where he is asking his other team members, and the readers, to suspend disbelief; these footprints belong to a time when perhaps not only did families in the conventional sense not exist, humans were not really humans as we know them today; they were probably just “humanoids”. And thus begins a discourse on what it might mean to be human, who could really qualify as the “Adam” for us.

There is some resolution of the story towards the end of the book, albeit one of despair. Jacques, having lost the last real connection to the family he had known in his childhood, is in dire stress. He wants to be able to contact and connect with all those he has lost; his mother, his brother, his son. He makes a desperate bid to be able to achieve the impossible, from trying to offer himself up as a guinea pig to a brain surgeon to visiting a psychic. The question this leaves you asking is – is he spiralling into madness?

Jacques and Sonia, after an estrangement (of sorts), come back together as a couple. Sonia, a character that has stayed strong throughout, tries to set things in order for her husband when she senses his unhappiness at Roya’s departure, the woman he has had a passionate, extra-marital affair with. It is here that her true quality as a wife comes to light, of her having known of Jacques’ cheating her, but never having mentioned it.

In a novel that explores the dark labyrinth of the mind, there is only one “madman” from whose perspective madness is given a voice, in Olivier’s tortured consciousness, and that too is done briefly. Could there have been a more detailed, a more varied narrative from the depths of the minds of those considered to be mad? Perhaps. But then that might have changed the direction of the story. The undercurrent of melancholy that runs throughout the novel finally finds itself closing the doors to the story with the death of Daniel and Thomas’ spiral into Alzheimer’s, both of which leave a bitter aftertaste.


Here’s the thing about Human Traces; it starts out with great hope and ends with despondency. Is that what real life is like as well, full of childhood dreams, adolescent promises, eventually to be marred by mistakes and an end filled with sadness and perhaps, madness? Is this what it means to be human?

“…what makes us mad is almost the same thing as what makes us human.”

Even though the novel centres around the theme of mental illness it delves at greater length, into the human condition of being. It looks at life and relationships, and how volatile they can be. From jealousy to an extra-marital affair, from burgeoning ambitions to overconfidence, the novel explores emotions in so much depth, you can’t help getting introspective.

For readers of fiction, this novel might seem a bit off-putting in parts. But the number of interesting ideas it explores is indeed food for thought. In a quote found on Wikipedia, Sebastian Faulks says,

“Human Traces was a Sisyphean task. After spending five years in libraries reading up on madness, psychiatry and psychoanalysis (my office had charts and timelines and things plastered all over the walls), the act of finishing it felt like a bereavement.”

So, what exactly is the price we pay for being human? Memories? Melancholy? Madness?

By Sanskriti Nagar

I'm a storyteller on a journey - to connect people with places, the past with the present, the contemporary with the traditional. I'm just stepping into the shoes of an explorer, aspiring to be a globetrotter, and someday, a novelist. Follow me through my journeys, and if something does resonate with you, or you'd like me to cover a story for you, I'd love to catch up. (PS: I love coffee!)

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