Where My Heart Used to Beat* is the first of Sebastian Faulks’s novels that I’ve read (his best known, Birdsong, is on my mental list of World War I novels to read); I found it both challenging and absorbing.
The novel is a deep dive into the character of Robert Hendricks, its narrator. A psychiatrist practicing in 1980 London, he receives an unexpected letter from older man, Dr. Pereira, who resides on a small island off the coast of France. Dr. Pereira, also a psychiatrist, realized after he came across Robert’s book that the younger man might be the son of a man he served with during World War I; he invites Robert to visit the island, offering both to share reminiscences of his father and an suggestion that Robert might like to be his literary executor.
Intrigued, Robert accepts the invitation, only to find that Pereira has no intention of revealing what he knows all at once; instead, he wants first to hear about Robert’s memories of his own war (World War II) and the different challenges of his life as part of an attempt to understand the depredations and despair of the twentieth century (Robert has, by this point, mostly given into despair). As the younger doctor faces the dark pieces of his life that he’s tried to shut away—sometimes narrating them to Pereira, sometimes to an imagined reader (an effect which is occasionally disconcerting)—we are drawn deeper into the recesses of his mind, with uncertain results.
While I’m glad that I stayed with the novel because its extended exploration of the protagonist was in the end rewarding, what I found challenging initially was the character himself. Much of Robert Hendrick’s background is unremarkable, given his generation; his father died during World War I; he worked hard in school and earned a scholarship to college; he went on to fight in his own war and then returned home to begin a successful career in a difficult specialty. But he has what some would term “intimacy issues”; high on my list of fictional tropes I’d be happy never to see again is the quasi-lonely middle-aged man who pays for sex and spends time remembering and judging the bodies of women he’s slept with. After one short-term affair implodes, Robert relates,
Unpleasant though it was, the sense of rupture and the vista of solitude it opened up didn’t feel traumatic; they felt more like a reversion to the norm. I had been here before: I was an habitué of loneliness, which was in any case the underlying condition of mankind from which the little alliances and dependencies we make are only a diversion.
Despite what was for me an inauspicious beginning to the novel, the quality of Mr. Faulks’s prose kept me reading. He pays special attention to Robert’s war experience; particularly well written and harrowing is the description of the British landing in Italy and subsequent trench battles at Anzio in 1944 (which I came to the book woefully untutored in). This is the setup for the great mystery and formative event of Robert’s life: the loss of his first and only love, an Italian woman he refers to as “L.”
Robert and Pereira share a humane view of mental illness, showing great respect for their patients and questioning what exactly the meaning of “madness” is. While I often found that their discussions lacked nuance, and that Robert’s further reflections, like his references to Eliot and the Aeneid, were too direct, the intricacies of this odd and yet ordinary character remained compelling.
If anything, I think Where My Heart Used to Beat is in part a modern, novelistic twist on Dante’s Inferno; Pereira is the Virgil leading Robert’s Dante into the hell (with some rather mundane circles, some indeed hellish) of his own mind, a mind obsessed with a lost Italian woman.
I’d recommend this book to readers interested in deep characterization, strong war writing, and English life in the interwar period (Mr. Faulks shows his excellent command of detail when writing about Robert’s boyhood); if you like a love story balanced with a heaping portion of non-romantic material, this is a novel for you.
Readers, what’s your favorite book about World War II?
*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review.