Sunday 18 February 2018

Books: Faulks still singing the same old song

Fiction: Where My Heart Used to Beat, Sebastian Faulks, Hutchinson, tpbk, 352 pages, €18.99 

Sketchy: There is something limp about Sebastian Faulks's latest novel
Sketchy: There is something limp about Sebastian Faulks's latest novel
Where My Heart Used to Beat

Eilis O'Hanlon

Alone and at a loose end whilst staying in a friend's apartment in Manhattan, Robert Hendricks, a moderately successful psychiatrist from England, picks up the phone and orders a call girl. Back in London, he finds an anonymous message on his answer-phone: "We know what you did, you filthy bastard. We know what you did to that poor woman."

If this was a thriller by Harlan Coben, or a Hollywood movie, Robert would start to investigate at this point; there'd be dramatic revelations, secrets uncovered, danger. Where My Heart Used To Beat, however, is a Sebastian Faulks novel, so what Robert does is immediately forget all about it and start ruminating on his life instead.

Providentially, he also happens to receive an invitation to an island off the south coast of France, where another psychiatrist specialising in the study of memory claims to have known Robert's father, who died in the Great War when the narrator was two years old. Alexander Pereira wants Robert to be his literary executor, but seems more interested in hearing the story of his visitor's life. Robert obliges, recounting his activities during the Second World War, fighting in Italy, where he met the one true love of his life, Luisa, over whom he still moons.

Faulks has written extensively about both wars before, in Birdsong amongst other titles, so this aspect of the new novel ticks that box for his faithful readers. He has an interesting theory to expound too, which is that the horrors of the 20th century - fascism, communism, the Holocaust - can all be traced to the trenches of the First World War, when men died on an industrial scale and the notion set in that individual life didn't matter.

This idea doesn't really go anywhere, though. It's just another element of a story that often seems to be made up of scraps of other possible narratives. Characters come and go. Things happen, but are not necessarily related to any of the other things that happen. There's a particularly pointless dog who keeps being dragged along on walks.

Robert hears that mysterious message on his answer-phone on page 8, but it's not mentioned again until page 294, when the mystery, such as it is, is perfunctorily resolved. A thriller writer would call that cheating. Faulks has used the device of an unreliable first-person narrator before in Engleby, but this time it feels sketchy, unrealised. It's all very tidily done, and the author rarely puts a foot wrong, but sometimes one longs for him to do so, because the results might be interesting, instead of remaining so tightly controlled, buttoned up in a stereotypically British way. There's something limp about the novel, which is reflected in its insipid title. Big ideas about how remembering actually changes and reshapes the past are sprinkled on the tale rather than woven through it.

Two quotes from the book seem key. The first comes early on: "I wondered whether it was a peculiarly English trait to feel like an imposter all one's life, to fear that at any moment one might be rumbled." The second when, sitting outside a café in France, Robert takes out a book to read: "It was a short novel by a man who wrote elegantly but without any talent for the form; it had been well received and I worried he would waste his life under the illusion that this was his calling."

These feel like glimpses into an authorial insecurity that could have sparked far richer exploration. Instead this book is content to simply pass time pleasantly, both for the author and his readers.

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