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 Daughters of Mars, by Thomas Keneally

Keneally is one of my favorite contemporary authors, and this 2012 novel is one of his best. It offers a broad historic canvas, and through the experiences of two nurses it explores the blend of pain, dedication, and heroism triggered by war, in this case World War I.

The nurses are volunteer Australian nurses, Sally and Naomi Durance, who in 1915 are sent off to Europe to treat wounded soldiers on hospital ships and in hospital tents. And they quickly learn the harrowing effect of war on men’s lives, a major point of this novel. But first we get to know the nurses themselves. Naomi is more aggressive, Sally, whom we get closer to, less so. Prior to the war, Sally has stayed home to nurse, while Naomi has gone to the big city to serve its more prestigious doctors.

The two sisters are united, most strongly, by a single incident that troubles Sally, their having collaborated in the mercy killing of their mother who was suffering unmercifully as she neared death. And while they do not regret her death, they do have a guilty conscience about their plotting—and this has separated them. For whenever they are close, it forces them to acknowledge what they planned together.

Two amazing scenes enliven the first 150 pages. The first is on a hospital ship, as its nurses and doctors receive the first wave of horribly injured soldiers from the battlefields at Gallipoli. The second is the torpedoing of a converted troopship, and its dramatic sinking while soldiers and nurses cling to drifting lifeboats. But as the two scenes convey the horror of war, this shared experience by Sally and Naomi also brings the sisters closer together.

After Sally and Naomi reconcile, they are separated by the vagaries of war when Naomi breaks discipline and is sent back to Australia. This, however, allows Keneally to broaden his canvas, to include more of the home front as well as more seaboard life. When they eventually rejoin, it is in France.

Something interesting happens in the center section of this novel. We move back and forth between Sally and Naomi as they become nurses in France and move closer to the front. But in dramatic tension, in the movement of the plot, nothing really happens. Each gets closer to a man, each becomes gradually aware that a new satisfaction may come from such a relationship. But nothing happens that makes the reader ask what these characters will do next. And yet, this section of the novel is continually fascinating—a tribute, I think, to the skill of this novelist. One reason is that Keneally brings to life the details of that era, along with the uncertainty of warfare and the physical pain that engulfs the nursing stations.

As Sally and Naomi develop their relationships with two men, however, the reader does wonder whether they will find happiness with these two figures at the end of the novel. Because this is a serious work of literature, and given that men are being maimed and killed all along the battlefront, the fate of these lovers is uncertain. It also becomes morally complex when Keneally raises a matter of conscience, and of justice. For Naomi’s lover, Ian, is imprisoned after he has volunteered as a Quaker to serve in a medical unit to save men, but then refuses an order to take up a rifle and kill men.

One problem I had was differentiating among the various nurses. Each has her own characteristics, but they do not sufficiently motivate their actions. And so I found it difficult to separate them whenever they reappeared on the scene. Perhaps they would have been better individualized if they had interacted more, influencing each other, especially Sally and Naomi. Matron Mitchie stands out because she did exactly that, as well as because of the injury she suffers.

The same difficulty applies to the doctors and soldiers with whom the nurses form attachments. They exist primarily in their relationship to a particular nurse, a nurse whose own existence is not separate enough from her fellow nurses.

Just before the ending, Keneally hints at how he will handle the fate of the two sisters. The issue is the fate of their mother as she suffered her excruciating death. And Keneally does not tell us the cause of that death. Was it a natural death, or a mercy killing? And which of the sisters is telling the truth? The lack of a clear answer hints at what is to come.

Then we do come to that ending. Shades of the French lieutenant. There are two endings. We have a choice. Who will live and who will die? The author appears to leave it to the reader. Did he want to have his literary cake and eat it, too? I cannot decide. Both endings are beautifully written. And one wants to be convinced by both. But is Keneally being fair? Is this even a matter or artistic integrity? Bottomline, it is as if Keneally has decided that a major character must die if his novel is to have literary stature, but he cannot decide who it is to be.

Overall, this is a marvelous novel. It is a portrait of two sisters, primarily, but it is also a portrait of war and even more of the nursing profession in war. One lives with these characters off the shores of Gallipoli, then in lifeboats plunging with the sea, and finally moving back and forth through the mud and poppy fields of France.

And yet what one remembers here are not the individual nurses, except Sally and Naomi. What one remembers are the nurses’ loyalty to their profession, as they physically lift and carry these soldiers, wash and bandage their wounds, fed them or inject morphine, cheer them with talk or watch over them in sleep. It is indeed a marvelous achievement to put the reader in the casualty wards of this suffering and recuperating army so far from home.

Indeed, one should note that this war is vividly created without one battle scene. The war is made real by its wounded and its dead. And one may surely argue that this justifies the significance of this novel. That while it lives through the adventures of the two sisters, its literary stature emerges from its exposure of the sufferings of innocent youth.

Keneally was 77 when he published this novel. May he continue to explore our humanity within the sufferings that life brings. (September, 2015)