Tuesday, 5 June 2018

Post 75: Where my Heart Used to Beat

My final half term holiday is over. I can't believe that this will be my last term at school.  I loved going in this morning and picking up the school routine. My teaching has an edge of desperation to it as I try to teach as much as I can to as many people as possible in the shortest possible time.  This makes for some interesting revision sessions! At this point, I can't imagine not going back to it, but I will see where next year's mid-life crisis leads me...

So the title of my latest read has some poignancy: Where my Heart Used to Beat is a reflective novel written from the viewpoint of its protagonist looking back on "more than sixty years of living." Whilst I am some way off that number, I am certainly at a stage where life is changing.  Child 1 is getting married in August and Child 2 has one more year at uni; so hands-on motherhood is pretty much a chunk of my life that I am beginning to look back on, to see where my heart used to beat in accordance with their needs.  And teaching is soon to be an experience to reflect on rather than do.  I will instead, have the pleasure of being taught. Education runs through my veins and certainly forms a significant part of who I am so far.

Enough about me.  The great Sebastian Faulks was not concerning himself with my sense of identity, but that of his central character, Robert Hendricks. The novel opens in a hotel room in America and an encounter with a hooker. This is rapidly followed by a party with much younger people in the flat above his own in London.  On first appearance, Hendricks is unsettled and unsatisfied. Still in chapter one, he receives a letter from Alexander Pereira "apparently offering [him] a job."  This is the catalyst for reflection.  The letter-writer, heretofore unknown by Hendricks, states that he served with Hendricks' father in the first world war. He also explains that he has spent much of his working life as a neurologist, forming another connection with the central character who is a doctor and psychiatrist. Thus the two key threads of the story are set up:warfare and mental health.

I really enjoyed the connection between past and present in this book.  It is an amazing feat as the combined memories of Pereira and Hendrick form the sweep of the twentieth century.  It encourages the reader to reflect on worldwide events and politics but see them personally, react morally and seek introspection.  The heart of the novel is a wartime romance that flourished in Italy in World War Two between Luisa and Hendricks. Hendrick recalls this relationship with tenderness, and it is clear that this love is the pivot for much of his adult decision-making.

Through the Birdsong trilogy, Faulks has revealed himself to be master of the war story and so Hendricks' retelling of his own war is unsurprisingly convincing and empathetic. But it becomes clear that one of the most interesting things about his story are the gaps, what he chooses to leave out. Even when coerced by Pereira,there are things he does not reveal.

Hendricks' privacy is interesting. His life's work has been to try to reach and understand psychiatric patients, to reach into their gaps and help them to find some meaning or relief. He resists such counselling himself however, and holds information back even as he opens up his memories to Pereira.  I found the psychological aspect of the story compelling, and would really like to see Faulks extend and explore this strand in future novels.

Juxtaposed against Hendricks' laudable aim to reach the unreachable is the fact that he states so clearly that, "All the connections I've made with people over more than sixty years of living cannot conceal the fact that I am utterly alone." This hooked me from the outset.  To feel so isolated after a life many would regard as successful and full of humanity seems bleak and cruel.  Faulks creates in Hendricks a sympathetic protagonist who helps us to examine what it means to be human, and perhaps leads us to question what we need to make us feel that we are leading lives worth living.

Finally, there is a twist in this book that  is not revealed until the closing chapters. It was something that I had not anticipated and, as I said at the end of my last blog, has made this novel a definite on my re-read list.

I met Sebastian Faulks at a
reading at Henley Literary
Festival in 2016
This is a clever novel that gives a macro view of the twentieth century through the micro view of an individual and his associates. It covers politics and trauma, madness and love, loss and grief, but through it all, it has heart.  It is never sentimental but it accesses humanity and sentiment. Essentially, it captures a life with all its flaws, and in doing so, encourages readers to reflect on their own experiences, and maybe even challenges us to probe those areas we leave well alone or have yet to fully acknowledge.

Sebastian Faulks is a modern author who stands out amongst those who have achieved contemporary success.  This novel is original and will not disappoint.

1 comment:

  1. I loved it when I read it.
    Thanks for the blog - there's always grief to leave things even when it is our choice and exciting things are ahead. x

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