On a small island off the south coast of France, Robert Hendricks – an English doctor who has seen the best and the worst the twentieth century had to offer – is forced to confront the events that made up his life. His host is Alexander Pereira, a man who seems to know more about his guest than Hendricks himself does.
The search for the past takes us through the war in Italy in 1944, a passionate love that seems to hold out hope, the great days of idealistic work in the 1960s and finally – unforgettably – back into the trenches of the Western Front.
I have been a huge fan of Sebastian Faulks since reading Human Remains over ten years ago. After I had, I went on a bit of a Faulks binge and read everything he’d written up to the that point and have read every book he’s written since. Some I’ve loved, some I’ve not. None have been boring and one, Engleby, is one of my favourite books of all time. Why, then, it’s taken me over a year since it’s release to read Where My Heart Used to Beat is beyond me – other than there are too many books on my shelves and my kindle for me to keep up.
The book opens in the early 80’s with Dr. Robert Hendricks’ leaving New York in a hurry. Why he’s in a hurry is never completely clear, though as you start to get to know him you wonder if he isn’t always slightly on the run – from his past and from his life in general. Back in London, he decides to respond to a letter that he received weeks before from a Dr. Pereira, inviting him to visit the doctor at his home on a small island off the coast of France. Faulks likes France and a lot of his books are set there (even if just in part); the way he writes about it, with affection, is so clear I felt that I was there with him.
He is drawn to the Pereira because he says he knew Hendricks’ father during WWI and has things to tell him. Hendricks never knew his father, he died when he was two, and has mixed feelings about knowing more but feels compelled to accept the offer of a visit. In fact, he has mixed feelings about everything to do with his life. He seems incapable of forming lasting relationships, keeping himself at a distance from those who try to become friends and pulling away from romantic relationships as soon as they become serious.
Pereira instinctively sees this in Hendricks and, over the course of several weeks and several visits, slowly draws out the story of his past, what in it has led him to become the man he is in the present. It’s a past that starts with his dead father before focusing on his experiences in WWII and his lost love, Louisa, a woman he has never been able to forget. Weaving between past, present, his time in France and his time in England, slowly the story that emerges is of a man who is in pain, and always has been.
The irony in it is that he is a psychiatrist, he should have been able to see and understand his behaviours, yet it takes a stranger to bring him out of himself and help him try and maybe find some peace during the last years of his life (Hendrick is 64 in the present). I found this side of it very sad and the story overall very touching. Faulks has an amazing ability to paint a picture of what a person is thinking and feeling without beating you over the head with it. I felt like I was discovering the truth at the same time as Hendricks.
The story itself focuses on themes that are familiar to a lot of Faulks’ writing. His books look at love, loss, the war and also mental illness. Faulks’ description of the battlefield is unflinching and unflattering at times. The men he writes about were heros but the war itself was not a heroic time. How men and women lived, how they behaved, in order to survive is shown here in all its glory and tragedy. His description of how mental illness was seen over a period of around 80 years was also fascinating, especially as I work in the mental health field. There is tragedy in this too, in how people were treated – especially things like PTSD – and how they were judged.
In fact, tragic could sum this book up in many ways – I felt a lot of sadness whilst reading it, as Hendricks laid himself bare and I came to understand just how he had never truly lived despite having an interesting life and successful career. Don’t get me wrong, there are moments of joy in his memories and light at the end of the tunnel as he comes to terms with his past, but this is not a happy book. Because of that, it won’t be for everyone I’m sure. I know other reviews I have read have said as much. For me, though, it was a wonderfully written window into a damaged soul and I really liked it a lot.
Publisher: Vintage Digital
Publication Date: 30th June, 2016 (first published 10th September, 2015)
Genre: Literary fiction
Find on: Amazon UK / Amazon US / Goodreads