Book Review: Where My Heart Used To Beat by Sebastian Faulks

Book - Where my heart used to beat by Sebastian FaulksAt the Bath Literature Festival Faulks spoke about his earlier work as an attempt to discover “how we got to this point”, whilst his later books examine the question “What are we?”. He described Where my Heart used to beat, his 13th novel, as a way of “wrapping up all of that”, a culmination of all his previous writing.    

The novel explores love, memory and what makes us who we are, and I’m not ashamed to admit that there are a few tear stains on the final pages of the copy I borrowed from Cardiff Library.

To be completely honest, the first scene in Where my Heart used to Beat was not one that drew me in. It describes a man (Hendricks) in his sixties, purchasing sex from a prostitute. However, as the story unfolds, this scene serves to underline his insecurity. He is a man, seemingly satisfied with a successful career, living comfortably, in a convenient relationship with a younger woman, and yet deeply troubled: “I was an habitué of loneliness…”.

As Hendricks begins to recount his past, starting with a diary from his youth, the narrative settles into something more engaging. It is re-reading this diary which inspires him to accept an unusual invitation to a remote French island, from an old man (Pereira) who claims to have known his father. Piece by piece, he recalls his own experiences of fighting in the Second World War, and learns more about his father, who died during the First World War, when he was too young to remember.

Moments of Madness

There is irony in the fact that Hendricks, a successful psychiatrist, has experienced his own ‘moments of madness’. He recalls a particular scene, while fighting in Italy, which is “not clear” in his mind, when “time seemed to collapse”. In his description of what happened, disembodied voices seem to speak to him, instruct him, reassure him and confound him – the voice of his old teacher, his friend, and finally the voice of his dead father, as he descends into a confusion of sensations:

“I’m running now, the rain is bullets, the drifting, wavering curtain of bullets, swirling down the drenched wadi, and I’m free to be a man, I’m free to be dead, I’m free to run and run.”

He awakens, unsure of what has happened, with a pistol wound in his shoulder. It is this moment which underlies some of his insecurity, as is revealed by his visit to an old comrade, who recalls his own doubts about what happened to Hendricks that day. How can a successful psychiatrist be unaware of what happened during a crucial part of his own life?

Sebastian Faulks signing books at the Bath Literature Festival

Sebastian Faulks signing books at the Bath Literature Festival

He also recalls his brief, yet idyllic, love affair with the elegant Luisa; a kind of madness, from which, it seems, he has never entirely recovered.

Hendricks’ reminiscences move on to his career after the war, and include a fascinating insight into the mind of the schizophrenic. He describes the excitement and hope of a post-war generation, determined not to repeat the mistakes of their parents: “no more padded cells and no more strait-jackets”. But he is sad too, recognising this as no more than a pathetic attempt to “change the world”.

As the narrative continues, Hendricks gradually faces the truth of his devastating love for Luisa, and the detrimental effect of her loss on the rest of his life: “I lamented the absence of the closeness… to know and be known so well…” The effect on him is catastrophic: “…I was half a man, I was nothing.”

The novel takes us on a journey, a kind of healing process for Hendricks, in which he becomes more and more aware of how past experiences have brought him to his present state, exploring the idea of memory as both helpful and harmful:

“I was worried that if I probed any deeper into the events of my life… I might not be able to manage; that I might go mad.”

It ends with revelations that are both shocking and satisfying – and finally Hendricks returns to his childhood home, to where it all began, facing the “doors into the darkness” through which he’d never had the courage to venture as a child.

Where my heart used to beat is a powerful tale of love and loss. As a reader, I began with a certain dislike and pity for the protagonist, Hendricks. By the end of the novel I was so involved in his life, his fears, hopes and memories, that I used up quite a few tissues through the final chapters.

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