where my heart used to beat, by Sebastian Faulks

This is an unusual novel, an ambitious one, a deep one, and almost a successful one. It is Faulks apparently summing up through a fictional story the world of the 20th century, a world he has lived in, has not fully understood, and whose meaning he is searching for here.

His hero seems to be a stand-in for the author. He is Robert Hendricks, a psychiatrist who seeks in the workings of the mind the meaning of the life he has lived. How the mind does work is an obvious interest of the author, for his most successful novel in my eyes was Human Traces, in which two doctors seek to learn how the mind works. One doctor sees a link between the physical brain and the mind, and seeks a physical means to cure the insane. While his colleague believes that insanity is inherent in the mind, and is the price mankind pays for being human. Both these theories are reflected in this story of Hendricks, a man who suffered both trauma and love during World War II, and who is haunted by the death of his father in World War I. Overall, one concludes that Faulks sees in the human mind a source to understanding the tumultuous century he, and we, have lived through.

Another theme that weighs heavily in Faulks’ major works is the impact of two World Wars. It is again present here. Robert Hendricks’ father, we learn, died in the horrors of trench warfare in 1918, while the son was shaken by the battlefront deaths he encountered in France, in Tunisia, and in the climactic battle at Anzio during World War II. Indeed, Robert has come away with a version of today’s post traumatic stress syndrome. For, even as he makes a career studying the mind and treating other people, he cannot resolve his own mental issues. Which is primarily reflected in his problems connecting to others, particularly to women.

Gradually, we learn, however, that he did have one great love, a beautiful Italian woman named Luisa, whom he met while recuperating from a war wound in Italy; and he lived with her for a few blissful months. But while their love was not to be, not least due to his own reticence, yet his memory of her has meant a subsequent failure at making a connection with any other woman.

And so this novel is less about the horror of war, as powerful as the war scenes may be. It is about human connections, and the search to give meaning to one’s life. Which this one man is seeking, but also, one thinks, the author as well. In any event, Robert receives a letter from a dying Frenchman, Alexander Pereira, who served with his father in World War I and who invites Robert for a visit to southern France to tell him more about the fate of his father. Our hero accepts this invitation, but resists knowing about his father’s death. In some way, he seems to fear that by learning how his father died he may become more disillusioned about the world they have both lived in. The reader, on the other hand, continues on, hoping to understand Robert’s approach to life, as well as to see his own world with a broader perspective.

And so this work takes on another level, its true subject: the meaning of life in this 20th century. In addition to Robert’s wartime experiences and his attempt to establish his professional reputation after the war, we therefore follow him as he travels back and forth to southern France to learn about his father and the first World War, and perhaps more about himself. Meanwhile, he explores his own thesis in a book, The Chosen Few, his subject being those who are insane. He seems to say in this book that doctors often ignore the patient’s physical illness and push their own theory of how the mind works, even as, given the events of the 20th century, “humans had tried to remake the world in their own insane image.”

Robert’s book reveals to him that he yearns for the innocence of life that existed before World War I. And the reader understands that he is dissatisfied with his book because such innocence has vanished in the wake of two World Wars. And that his search for that innocence in love will never be fulfilled, for he missed his only chance at it—because of a blend of his own reticence and the trauma of losing so many friends in the bloody Italian campaign. Which, as noted, became the key to his life, sealing him off from making a connection with other human beings.

As these various narratives intermingle, the novel advances our understanding of Robert’s life and heightens our interest in learning whether or not he will finally understand the meaning of this century and the life he has lived. The novel’s conclusion is a rather negative one, for it describes a heartless modern world that leaves men with no route to understanding life.

Instead, Robert learns the truth of his father’s death; and that connection with his origins stands in for the connections he has been unable to make with others since the trauma of the war. It is a satisfying ending in literary terms, as it seems to say: like father, like son. Both are disillusioned. But it is not satisfying in human terms. For it leaves them both with a sense of emptiness as they face the reality they live in.

One guesses that this will be the last major novel that Faulks attempts. Unless, like his hero here, he thinks he has failed to capture the true meaning of life in the 20th century, and man’s role in its decline. For he sees it as a world that, despite the marvels of new knowledge and new technology, seems headed toward failure, a failure to find a world “where my heart used to beat.”

Perhaps the major miscalculation Faulks has made here is with his hero, Robert Hendricks. Yes, he has been traumatized by the horror of war, and is haunted by the lack of information about his father. But he is too passive, beginning with his one great love affair and continuing after the war as he loses any connection with his wartime buddies and is unable to make any emotional connection with the women he encounters. Moreover, he lives too much within his own mind, searching for an intellectual answer to the emptiness he feels around him. Yet it is an emptiness that he himself is the cause of. In sum, Faulks have given us too much of an intellectual hero, and not enough of an emotional one. (August, 2017)

The Prince of Tides, by Pat Conroy

This 1986 work is not quite literature, but I am tempted to call it a great novel. Because it is so enjoyable—and I almost did not read it! It is a story of a family, of its Southern culture, and of madness. The narrator hero is Tom Wingo, shy and lacking in confidence in his youth, when much of the tale takes place, and a confident and mature football coach as he is telling his story. Tom has traveled to New York City as the novel begins because his twin sister Savannah, a young and successful poet, has attempted suicide once again. While there, he describes to Susan Lowenstein, Savannah’s psychiatrist, his own youth and the life that has formed himself and his sister, indeed his entire family. This tale, related in flashbacks, is the heart of the novel.

Tom’s family leads a fascinating life, and it represents both the major portion of the novel and its richest portion. It is rich because of Tom’s mother and father, his older brother Luke, his religious grandfather and his eccentric grandmother, as well as his twin sister. It is even richer because it captures the flavor of the small-town Colleton, SC, and contrasts it with the bustle of New York City. Savannah spends her life intent to get away from that town’s Southern culture, and Tom is unable to abandon it.

This has to be Conroy’s most ambitious novel, and, except for a small segment toward the end, he succeeds wonderfully. He does return to the violent, disciplined father of his earlier novels, but his portrait of Henry Wingo is nuanced, making him both a war hero and a dreamer who futilely seeks business opportunities that will make him rich. The author gives more effort, however, to the complexity of Tom’s mother, Lila Wingo, a woman who plans her every step and considers herself both perfect and superior to everyone else. A subplot follows her climb into the town’s upper crust.

And yet the heart of this novel is the relationship among Tom, Savannah, and Luke. They love each other and always support each other, whether their parents discipline them, Savannah attempts suicide, Tom thinks himself a failure at life, or Luke rebels against the government.

That rebellion is the only weak portion of the novel, as Luke retreats into the swamp to conduct a guerilla action against the federal takeover of his hometown. And this takes us out of the family story, even out of the clash of Northern and Southern cultures. Instead, the novel offers a brief, right-wing diatribe against nuclear war and governmental authority. It is even out of character for quiet, mild-mannered Luke. Of course, to balance the novel politically, there is a significant section when the football team Tom coaches rejects a black running back—until his speed helps them win a few games.

But it is the family story that makes this novel, plus its deeply felt portrait of the swamp, streams, and bay of the South Carolina low country, where Henry and his sons earn their living as shrimp-boaters and their reputation as less fortunate members of society. Mother Lila is in combat with that society, of course, as well as with her husband, and often with her children. Her children love her, however, even as she claims they do not. But her interesting portrait is really background to the children’s stories.

The primary portrait is of narrator Tom, who has a poor opinion of himself as a youth, but by the time he goes to New York to help Savannah he is much more aware of both his faults and his value. Estranged from his wife, whom he has discovered is having an affair, he still loves his three daughters, and feels a certain guilt when he is attracted to Savannah’s psychiatrist, Susan Lowenstein. We read to learn what will develop with Lowenstein, as he calls her, and find at the end a satisfying, if unusual in today’s terms, resolution.

Savannah herself is more real as a young girl yearning to escape what she considers a backward Southern culture and then fleeing to New York to be a poet. She is highly opinionated, and quite interesting to listen to. Luke is the quietest and steadiest of the group, making his final actions more surprising, even unconvincing, although he does lead an escapade in which the three kidnap a porpoise from an aquarium and then release it.

The most interesting scenes in this novel often evolve around Tom’s conversations, often adversarial. Such as with his parents and siblings, but also with Lowenstein and even such minor characters as wealthy Reese Newberry, who is trying to buy up all of the town of Colleton, and both Lowenstein’s son Bernard and her violinist husband, Henry Woodruff in New York.

I was particularly dawn in by Tom’s witty, cynical observations. They evolve out of his early disillusion with his own character. He calls himself “’the most dishonest person I’ve ever met. I never know exactly how I feel about something.” But these conversations also work because they turn in unexpected directions, consistent with each character, and the others often make excellent responses to Tom’s frequently sarcastic opinions.

The novel’s movement from the present in New York to different pasts is effective, even when the shift occurs at suspenseful moments, but it also makes one aware of the author’s technique. And toward the end, it is somewhat confusing regarding the timing of Luke’s fate, Tom’s fate, and Savannah’s fate. Also notable is the absence of Luke in the later time frame, and the hints that something dire will soon be told. For a while, it appears to be referring to the simultaneous rapes of Lila, Savannah, and Tom, but that highly dramatic event is only an anti-climax.

Some critics have felt that too much happens in this novel. As Gail Goodman wrote in The New York Times, “ In The Prince of Tides, the smart man and serious writer in Pat Conroy have been temporarily waylaid by the bullying monster of heavy-handed, inflated plot and the siren voice of Mother South at her treacherous worst—embroidered, sentimental, inexact, telling it over and over again as it never was.” Except, I would argue that this is the South as it was to these particular characters at this time. It is a convincing South, a South attempting to preserve a way of life that belongs to the past, and a family of the South caught up in contradictions that follow their recognition of a changing world.

To me, this novel works, except for Luke’s melodramatic moment at the end. And it then recovers with a tender Epilogue that convincingly portrays a Tom who can love two women. Because each has met a need he has had in a certain period of his life, and he will not forgot this.

The Prince of the title is Luke, even if he is not the main character. But he is a major character, and he stands for the preservation of the local culture and local environment that is so lovingly evoked here. Moreover, the book’s climax that revolves around his actions will lead Savannah to create a new book of poems in his name.

While Henry Wingo converts to Catholicism when he is saved by a priest in World War II, neither religion nor Catholicism play a major role here. The closest is when Amos Wingo, Tom’s grandfather, parades up and down the local streets with a cross over his shoulder on Good Friday. But he is regarded as an eccentric by the community. He is also regarded as a good man, when he takes back his wife after she has left him for another man and then toured the world until she runs out of money. Amos is included more for Southern flavor than religious flavor, therefore, and Tom’s own faith never becomes a part of his failure to relate emotionally to his wife or a part of his success in relating to Lowenstein. Indeed, Tom’s emotional evolution into a caring rather than a cynical person, as a result of the events depicted in this novel, helps to bring an overall unity and resolution to this work.

To sum up, I found this a rich and entertaining novel. I relish those works in which a mature narrator looks back on a troubled and uncertain youth, and tries to make sense of it. I also enjoy the clash of cultures, here that of provincial South Carolina and sophisticated New York, although it is more from Tom’s viewpoint than Savannah’s, because his is more a search for values in the difference, whereas Savannah clearly made her decision for New York even before she left.

Yes, this novel piles incident after incident, from a revenging tiger to a saved porpoise, from a downed pilot to a downtown Good Friday walk with the Cross, from a manipulating mother to a failing and criminal father, from the feminist grandmother to the socially ambitious mother, from hatred of one’s parents and one’s culture, to love, and then from the evocation of Southern swamp country to sophisticated New York offices and restaurants.

Even if Tom himself says that what he is relating is a “grotesque family melodrama,” the reader who buys into this tale as I do will appreciate the rich imagination that creates worlds of hate, ambition, violence, cunning, despair, and denial, alongside worlds of love, hope, courage, integrity, and this family’s search for self-acceptance.

This may be Conroy at the peak of his powers, offering his final exploration of a disruptive family. It does leave me uncertain, however, about whether or not to pursue his works further. (April, 2015)

The Secret Scripture, by Sebastian Barry

This is a quiet, heartfelt novel from 2008. It tells two stories, one by Roseanne Clear McNulty, who is one hundred years old and confined to a mental hospital, and the other by Dr. Grene, who is a psychiatrist at that hospital. Roseanne is the main character, and she is writing a secret memoir to help herself understand the unhappy past that led to her confinement. Dr. Grene is writing his own journal about his search to learn whether or not Roseanne needs to be under his care in the new hospital being built for his patients.

And their mutual search for the truth keeps the reader involved, with Roseanne’s search seeming to be more emotional, and Dr. Grene’s more intellectual. Indeed, an underlying theme of the novel is the tension in their revolutionary Irish society among one person’s idea of the truth, another person’s idea, and the actual truth.

Roeseanne sums up her search for the truth about her past in this way, which mirrors the author’s theme: “For history as far as I can see is not the arrangement of what happens, in sequence and in truth, but a fabulous arrangement of surmises and guesses held up as a banner against the assault of withering truth.”

This search for truth among many versions applies most particularly to Roseanne’s memory versus that of the local priest Father Gaunt, regarding what happened to her father when he died, as well as to her baby, whose death she may or may not have been the cause.

It is no small achievement that, except for hospital visits that the doctor makes to Roseanne, all the events here take place in the past, and yet we read on eagerly to learn the elusive truth of that past. What did happen in Roseanne’s youth? How did her farther die? How did her marriage dissolve? How did she become confined? And yet when we do learn the major truth about Roseanne and her baby, I was not entirely convinced. For me, it is too much a surprise for its own sake. It undoubtedly must have seemed to the author to be an intellectually perfect conclusion to tie his loose ends together. But I resisted accepting it. It was not for me emotionally satisfying. And it seemed to belong to another novel, given its tenor.

Roseanne, however, is a richly conceived character who has lived an interesting life. She grows up during the Irish troubles, with one faction of Irishmen fighting another in their search for independence. At the age of 12, she is confronted by the murder of an Irregular; and when her father dies, she denies reports that he was killed because he was a policeman. She grows up in a world of denial, in an atmosphere of family trust and political betrayal, as well as a world of masculine cruelty in the name of patriotism.

Religious tension also plays a role in this novel. And the Catholic Church, in the guise of Father Gaunt, comes closest to being the villain in the novel. For Roseanne is a Presbyterian, and a beautiful one whose father is dead and mother confined. So, to avoid her being a temptation to Sligo boys, Father Gaunt says, he matches her to a Catholic, Tom McNulty—despite Tom’s mother opposing her son’s marriage to a Protestant. And then, when the priest spots Roseanne in the company of another man, an Irregular (rebels the Church opposes), he interprets the worst, tells the McNulty family, and arranges an annulment—on the false basis of nymphomania. Which leaves Roseanne alone in a decrepit cottage at the edge of the sea.

Until she becomes pregnant. Which raises another question. When the child is born, it suddenly disappears. How? Why? The explanation, a throw-away line near the end, is not convincing.

In the continuous unfolding of Roseanne’s tragic life, author Barry not only deepens our sympathy for Roseanne but also writes with a beautiful but simple style, appropriate for her painful search among elusive memories. Which began with her innocence and her inability to understand what truly happened back then. And our sympathy is furthered by the doctor’s effort to understand her past, as well as his own responsibility for the present.

The novel works so well because these are two very sympathetic characters, and the reader easily identifies with them, including with a doctor who wants to learn the truth about Roseanne as much as she does herself. For he feels guilty that he has not paid sufficient to her and to why she is in his institution. And senses that his research into her world of rebellion and contradiction will lead to a final truth.

What makes this work so convincing and so moving is that Roseanne believes what she remembers is true, even as her memories change, even as she contradicts herself and does not realize her contradictions. And even as the doctor relates to us different conclusions, both by the priest and by the McNulty family, among others—with some of those conclusions being true, but others presented as facts to achieve a purpose, such as her confinement. It is a distortion of reality that mirrors the distortion on another plane in Irish society, as the political struggle grows more complex.

That the reader learns the true reality but that only one of the characters does so is a disappointment. Especially since the one who does not is Roseanne, the main character, the one we identify with, the one we are most concerned about. This is perhaps why the judges, in offering the Costa Book Award, said that the novel won despite the ending. That the beauty of its style and the richness of its human understanding were sufficient.

This novel inspires me to read more of Barry’s works, especially the one about Eneas McNulty, who plays a minor role here. Yes, minor, despite a significant encounter with Roseanne. One might ask, in fact, if their relationship has more significance in that other work, for it seems here more a matter of convenience for the author. Just as another convenience regards the explanation of why Dr. Grene is at the same institution as Roseanne.

Barry almost won the Man Booker with another novel on a similar theme. I can understand why, and will pursue more of this author so concerned about truth and innocence, reality and memory, and transgression and conscience. (December, 2014)