Book Review of Human Traces

Sebastian Faulks has treaded the path normally the writers do not tread upon. In his novel, human traces, he has humanised the worst ever mental condition that men can get in a very illuminating perspective. For the average reader, it can be a very interesting book to garner knowledge on the subject of mental illness and the history behind it. To the students of psychology and psychiatry, this book widens the horizon of  their knowledge.

This book tales the relationship of the two protagonists, Jacques Rabiere and Thomas Midwinter who are entwined by their same fervour of passion to know how the human mind actually works. As you go on reading their relationship takes an interesting twists and turns. Their line of work represents each distinct school of thought in the treatment approach of mental illness.

Sebastian Faulks has brought the raw human emotions and thinking in his work because of which there is never a dull moment in the story.  It seems the writer is so much knowledgeable on the subject, sometimes there is vague distinctive line whether it’s a novel or some sort of writer’s own philosophy. The writer has taken the vantage points from evolutionary perspective and through one of the protagonist view, the writer opines that the psychotic illness (like schizophrenia) should be viewed in the continuum of human evolution. It is due to the evolved faculty of human mind that we get such illness unlike seen in other animals.  The writer has most passionately emphasised this idea in the book.  Dr. Midwinter, one of the chief protagonist theorizes that since the evolution of homo sapien’s mind , the prevalence of schizophrenia is roughly the same  till date . Moreover, the prevalence rate seems to be equally distributed over all the regions.  And not to forget this condition has strong hereditary and genetic predispositions. Going by Darwin’s natural selection theory , if  “the people with this condition” was the abhorrence in the human evolution the genesis of psychosis would have been eliminated through natural selection. But in contrary it’s not. Therefore it must be advantageous for the development of the human. As per the protagonist, the ‘genes’ that make people schizophrenic in a different combination produce the best of the minds which ultimately advances human knowledge and intelligence. Therefore he thinks we have to thank the people with this mental illness as they have shared the collective burden of all the human race for its advancement and evolution. In a nutshell the capacity to be mad that is inherent in humans make us humans in the first place. So tellingly the protagonist points out to the facts that the hearing voices, seeing figures, catatonic movements are found immensely in the religious scripture that you begin to doubt that ‘godly figures’ as we know might have this condition. Or else how did they see, hear things that the general people didn’t see at that time or the belief that they were the ‘sons’, ‘messengers’ of the god  is the typical feature of the people with schizophrenia having such delusions.

The other perspective it entails is the ‘psycho-dynamic’ approach which suggest all the neuroses have unconscious roots in which all the experiences (both personal and evolutionary) remain.  If the doctors untap that unconscious root , then the neuroses will be cured. This perspective is carried out by another protagonist Dr. Rabiere  in the story who advocates psychotherapy and hypnotism as the form of treatment.

As evidently, these two perspectives collide and has its effect in their personal relationships yet both the protagonists have the same ideal of understanding how the mind functions.  Their differing views unfold singular experiences in their own lives which makes the story more readable.

While there is a danger that the book might sound monotonous for the readers as it encircles around human mind with loads of philosophical anecdotes but once you take your mind on those philosophical questions and curiosities it can be thrillingly stimulating as well.  The other criticism we can make of this book is although it has brought two perspective in their colluding path, somehow the readers can feel the writer favouring one perspective against the other.  The writer has faltered to remain unbiased for both of the characters.

One of the successes of this book is that it has helped to understand the pathology of mind more humanely and made realization that we all possess the quality of being mad which in another form brings out the excellence of the mind.  It epitomises how humane treatment with the people with serious mental conditions can transform their lives.  The book highlights the tendency to pathologize every behaviour of mentally ill people is absolutely wrong.

The book can be an arduous read if you don’t have patience and empathy to understand other’s view point. I very much recommend this book for the students of psychology and psychiatry cause it adds the extra dimension to their knowledge. And it can be very much illuminating, exciting and informed read for the general people as well .

Sujan Shrestha

About this Author

Sujan is a recent Psychology Graduate and enthusiast psychology student. His interests lies in Research and Clinical Psychology. He is also a writer and blogger. He is also responsible for editing PNN’s website and blog as Chief- Editor

Sujan Shrestha – who has written posts on Psychbigyaan Network Nepal.


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