Where My Heart Used to Beat review: misses more than a few beats

Despite a few powerful passages, Sebastian Faulks’s tale of memory is a complex, humourless piece of retro-sexism, writes Anna Carey

Sebastian Faulks. Photograph: BBC

Sebastian Faulks. Photograph: BBC

Sat, Sep 12, 2015, 00:49

   
 

Book Title:
Where My Heart Used to Beat

ISBN-13:
978-0091936839

Author:
Sebastian Faulks

Publisher:
Hutchinson

Guideline Price:
£2.00

It’s 1980, and Robert Hendricks, a Londoner, is a psychiatrist in his 60s who lives a solitary life. One day he receives a mysterious letter from an elderly fellow doctor.

Alexander Pereira lives on a tiny island in the south of France and is an admirer of Hendricks’s bestselling book about mental illness. He also believes that he knew Hendricks’s father before his death during the first World War. Now he wants Hendricks to visit him in his island home, to share his stories and to see if the younger man will serve as his literary executor.

Intrigued and unsettled by the thought of meeting a man “who could open a door to my past”, Hendricks accepts. But the invitation makes him realise he also “needed to make sure my own version of my life was in good order”.

And so the novel moves between Hendricks’s present and his memories, from his days as a scholarship schoolboy immersed in Latin and the Old Testament, to his life-changing experiences in Italy during the second World War.

It is here that he meets and falls in love with a beautiful Italian woman before continuing on to his subsequent career as a ground-breaking RD Laing-esque psychiatrist in the 1960s.

For most of Where My Heart Used to Beat, Sebastian Faulks manages his complex narrative well, switching skilfully between Hendricks’s past and his present as the doctor tries to make sense of his own experiences.

The depiction of Hendricks’s service in the Italian campaign is by far the most successful aspect of the book. Faulks vividly evokes the chaos, confusion, fear and bone-numbing exhaustion of battle. The close relationships between Hendricks and his comrades, particularly his friend Donald and his commanding officer Richard Varian, are convincingly drawn.

This section is the most interesting part of the novel. But when Faulks moves away from the heat of battle to focus on the story between Hendricks and Luisa, his Italian lover, things become less compelling.

 

Rather tedious

Indeed, the book’s main problem is that Hendricks himself isn’t that interesting. It’s hard to get invested in his attempts to understand his own psyche or his relationship with Luisa when she feels like a free-spirited cypher and he’s rather tedious, without much of a sense of humour.

In fact, it’s hard to believe that Faulks recently published a PG Wodehouse pastiche: Where My Heart Used to Beat is not only almost entirely devoid of humour, it reads as if it were written by someone with no sense of the absurd.

Another unappealing aspect of the book is that almost all the female characters are presented in purely sexual terms. Conveniently, the attractive ones are all instantly sexually attracted to Hendricks; given his general lack of charm and charisma, we can only assume he is staggeringly good looking.

As a young man, pretty girls drag him into rhododendron bushes and make unannounced visits to his college rooms. When he heads off to France in the early days of the war, a local girl literally pounces on him (“we had scarcely been through the pleasantries in broken French before she was kissing me on the lips”).

Luisa, meanwhile, falls madly in love with him after their first meeting. (“You were beautiful . . . I saw there was so much more to you and only I could understand it.”)

Most implausible of all is Céline, Pereira’s beautiful young neighbour, who happily swims naked in front of Hendricks before emerging from the sea and joining him for a chat, still in the nude. She later sexually propositions him.

It’s revealed that Céline has inherited her family’s mental instability, though conveniently it is the hyper-sexy sort of mental illness so beloved by film-makers and writers rather than the messy, disturbing sort of mental illness more common in real life.

Apart from Hendricks’s mother and Luisa’s boss, the only woman in the book who doesn’t jump on him is his colleague Judith, and she has “dry hair [and] thick nylons”, so he doesn’t fancy her anyway.

Flat and flagging

As the novel goes on, the narrative starts to flag. Potentially intriguing plot developments go nowhere. Pereira and his motives aren’t as dark or intriguing as they initially appear. The conclusion doesn’t feel as moving or as meaningful as Faulks clearly intends it to be.

Throughout the book, Faulks throws up interesting ideas about memory and identity, but the characters are so flat it’s hard to care.

And, yet, every so often there’s a passage that feels fresh and true, such as a father’s description of his talkative baby, and a grim trudge through a battlefield. These suggest a tighter, more vivid, more effective novel, a book I’d have rather read instead of this one.

Anna Carey’s latest novel is Rebecca Is Always Right, published by O’Brien Press