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Infinite in Faculty: Michele Magwood Interviews Sebastian Faulks About His Latest Novel Where My Heart Used to Be

Michele Magwood speaks to Sebastian Faulks about lightness of being, on and off the page

Where my Heart Used to BeatWhere My Heart Used to Beat
Sebastian Faulks (Penguin Random House)

“In some ways I think this book sums up, or puts an end to, a certain part of my writing career – if that’s not too grand a word for it.” Sebastian Faulks is speaking from his home in London, a gracious, considered man who is modest about his achievements, which include some 15 books, a shelf of awards and a CBE. His latest novel, Where My Heart Used to Beat, distils some of his recurring themes: the World Wars, psychiatry, the nature of love, the defective human condition.

The narrator of the story is Dr Robert Hendricks, a war-damaged psychiatrist who finds himself beached in late middle age. When we meet him he is fleeing back to London from New York after a mortifying encounter with a call girl. He is an embittered, troublesome man, oddly detached and – at first – hard to like. This was deliberate. “I’m not asking the reader to like this character, I’m asking the reader to be interested in him and to find out how he got to be this way,” Faulks explains.

Hendricks didn’t know his father, who was killed in the last weeks of the First World War, so when he receives an invitation to visit from an elderly man who fought with his father, he is curious. Dr Alexander Pereira is a neurologist who is living out his days on a tiny island off the coast of Cannes. He had read Hendricks’ seminal book on madness and therapy, based on his idealistic experiments in the 60s, and is ostensibly looking for a literary executor for his own work.

Slowly he coaxes out Hendricks’ buried trauma in a series of conversations that range over Hendricks’ lost and only love, his harrowing war experiences, his time in the wards of the most hopeless psychiatric patients. He frets, too, over what he believes is a catastrophic, God-forsaken century. “Maybe we will emerge from it one day and will recognise it as a psychotic episode that we will learn to put behind us,” he tells Pereira.

We begin to realise that Hendricks is not so much an unreliable narrator as an unstable one. He has tried to heal the world, but lacks the skills to heal himself. He dismisses the idea that he could be suffering simply from post-traumatic stress. “His sense of being apart goes back to something much simpler,” says Faulks, “and that is being fatherless. So many children in Europe lost their fathers in the first world war, so although he is a very peculiar, particular man in some ways, he’s also representative of a generation of men.”

But there is redemption ahead, and the narrative builds to a moving, revealing conclusion.

Faulks has perfected the balance of writing literary books that are also popular but feels it is time to change direction.

“The first half dozen books I wrote – you can roughly say they’re about, ‘Who are we? And how did we get to the end of the 20th century in such a mess?’ And the second half dozen ask, ‘What are we? What makes us a man, a woman, a human? Why is the human animal so flawed?’”

These are big themes, he says, that he’s tried to take head-on, “and to be honest I’m exhausted by them. After this I don’t think I have much more to say on these topics. I expect to do something completely different from now on. There’s a huge gulf between the seriousness and sadness of the books I’ve written, and the relatively lighthearted kind of life I live.”

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