Human Traces is the story of two men, Jacques Rebière and Thomas Midwinter, who set out at the turn of the 20th century to unravel the vast mystery of the human mind. Jacques and Thomas are physicians, each with a nearly obsessive passion for the developing field of psychiatry and each grappling with their own interpretation of the origins and structure of mental illness. The men embark on a joint project, an ambitious venture to treat, even possibly to cure, the most devastating diseases of the mind.Faulks’ novel does not allow the reader to be lazy or vague about the scientific details of Jacques and Thomas’ endeavors. Indeed, entire papers are presented verbatim alongside meticulously described case studies; speeches are given and lengthy philosophical discourse outlined page after page. This is a rather exhausting experience. Again and again, Jacques and Thomas are brought into conflict with the limits of their historical period, the technology available to them and even their own intellect. Despite these lengthy and demanding passages, the novel is able to express the urgency both men feel for their self-appointed role in the quest to discover the crossroads where emotion, intelligence and the physical body come together to define who we are as human beings.
There are two stories at play in this novel – the absorbing development of turn-of-the-century psychiatric medicine and the personal strain this obsessive project poses for the novel’s two main heroes. For each scientific dilemma examined in the novel, there is an equally loaded personal conflict. Where the novel loses power is when it sacrifices resolution of the latter to ensure the former contains all possible and intricate detail. When Jacques and/or Thomas fail scientifically or come to frustratingly ambiguous results, the reader is presented with a series of interesting questions (often through dialogue, lengthy letters or scientific theory) and then allowed to draw upon knowledge of modern medicine to finish the story, yet when either man fails or struggles personally, the conversations and scenes which would naturally arise from that failure are glossed over with minimal exploration or even ignored. Which seems a shame as that personal story more effectively mirrors and supports the greater story without needing to rely on protracted – and often dry – scientific exposition.
Ultimately, however, Human Traces triumphs because of its quieter moments. The minor personal revelations of its many characters and the perceptive beauty of Faulks’ prose are what make this novel a satisfying and touching exploration of the human psyche.