Sebastian Faulks is one of my most highly regarded authors of our time; having loved everything about Engleby, and as well as having a strong interest in the subject matter (such that I am studying for my own degree in psychology), I picked up Human Traces without a second thought: psychology, ambiguous dynamics between two male leads, the era—everything spoke to me.
Indeed, the lead characters, Thomas and Jacques, particularly in their younger years, are strong characters that have great potential and can carry the novel upon their own shoulders. I feel a little less strongly about the female leads, though the era the novel should be remembered with regards to this point; Sonia, Katharina and, in fact, several of the minor female characters are defined in their own ways, but ultimately all seem to relate back to their respective males. This aside, which I am sure is more a product of the social constraints then, the relationships between the characters are interesting, if a little detached and emotionless.
Alas, Human Traces is, at several points in the book, a struggle to read. Had it been 250 pages shorter, it is likely that it would have become the most enjoyed book in my possession. As it stands, Faulks's lack of focus negates the strength of his characters and the broad potential of his subject. Much like the bat and the whale Thomas describes, the book has vestigial chapters which add little to the overall novel. Although interesting to someone like me, who is used to slogging through textbooks upon textbooks of psycho-babble, often it reads less of a fictional story and more of an anthology of various (admittedly well-researched) psychological theories; the story does not benefit from page after page of blocks of lecturing and theory, with little more than a 'Thomas stood' or a 'Jacques cleared his throat' to break up the dialogue, and only serves to alienate those with little more than a passing interest in psychology.
And unfortunately, I feel that ultimately, Faulks's very relevant question—what, indeed, does make us human?—never quite gets answered satisfactorily; though he alludes to the insignificance of human life in relation to 'the grand scheme of things' he never quite makes a cohesive point, and it is easy to finish the book wondering what, exactly, had been the point....Continua