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  • Written by Sebastian Faulks
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  • Human Traces
  • Written by Sebastian Faulks
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On Sale: September 12, 2006
Pages: 0 | ISBN: 978-1-58836-568-2
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Sixteen-year-old Jacques Rebière is living a humble life in rural France, studying butterflies and frogs by candlelight in his bedroom. Across the Channel, in England, the playful Thomas Midwinter, also sixteen, is enjoying a life of ease-and is resigned to follow his father's wishes and pursue a career in medicine.

A fateful seaside meeting four years later sets the two young men on a profound course of friendship and discovery; they will become pioneers in the burgeoning field of psychiatry. But when a female patient at the doctors' Austrian sanatorium becomes dangerously ill, the two men's conflicting diagnosis threatens to divide them--and to undermine all their professional achievements. From the bestselling author of Birdsong comes this masterful novel that ventures to answer challenging questions of consciousness and science, and what it means to be human.

From the Trade Paperback edition.



An evening mist, salted by the western sea, was gathering on the low hills--reed-spattered rises running up from the rocks then back into the gorse- and bracken-covered country--and on to the roads that joined the villages, where lamps and candles flickered behind the shutters of the gray stone houses. It was poor country--so poor, remarked the Cure, who had recently arrived from Angers, that the stones of the shore called out for God's mercy. With the mist came sputtering rain, made invisible by the extinguished light, as it exploded like flung gravel at the windows, while stronger gusts made the shivering pine trees shed their needles on the dark, sanded earth.

Jacques Rebiere listened to the sounds from outside as he looked through the window of his bedroom; for a moment, a dim moon allowed him to see clouds foaming in the darkness. The weather reminded him, often, that it was not just he, at sixteen years old, who was young, but all mankind: a species that took infant steps on the drifts and faults of the earth.

Between the ends of his dirtied fingers, Jacques held a small blade which, over the course of several days, he had whetted to surgical sharpness. He pulled a candle closer. From downstairs he could hear the sound of his father's voice in reluctant negotiation.

The house was at the top of a narrow street that ran off the main square of Saint Agnes. Behind it, the village ended and there were thick woods--Monsieur Rebiere's own property--where Jacques was meant to trap birds and rabbits and prevent other villagers from doing likewise. The garden had an orchard of pear and apple trees whose fruits were collected and set to keep in one of the outbuildings. Rebiere's was a house of many stores: of sheds with beaten earth underfoot and slatted wooden shelves; of brick-floored cellars with stone bins on which the cobwebs closed the access to the bottles; of barred pantry and latched larder with trays of nuts and preserved fruits. The keys were on a ring in the pocket of Rebiere's waistcoat. Although born no more than sixty years earlier, he was known as "old Rebiere," perhaps for the arthritic movement of his knees, when he heaved himself up from his chair and straightened the joints beneath his breeches. He preferred to do business standing up; it gave the transaction a temporary air, helping to convince the other party that bargaining time was short.

Old Rebiere was a forester who worked as the agent for a landowner from Lorient. Over the years he had done some business on his own account, acquiring some parcels of land, three cottages that the heirs did not want to keep, some fields and woodland. Most of his work was no more than that of bailiff or rent collector, but he liked to try to negotiate private deals with a view to becoming a businessman in his own right. Born in the year after Waterloo, he had lived under a republic, three kings and an emperor; twice mayor of the local town, he had found it made little difference which government was in Paris, since so few edicts devolved from the distant center to his own Breton world.

The parlor of the house had smoke-stained wooden paneling and a white stone chimneypiece decorated with the carved head of a wild boar. A small fire was smoldering in the grate as Rebiere attempted to conclude his meeting with the notary who had come to see him. He never invited guests into his study but preferred to speak to them in this public room, as though he might later need witnesses to what had passed between them. His second wife sat in her accustomed chair by the door, sewing and listening. Rebiere's tactic was to say as little as possible; he had found that silence, accompanied by pained inhalation, often induced nervousness in the other side. His contributions, when they were unavoidable, were delivered in a reluctant murmur, melancholy, full of weariness at a world that had obliged him to agree terms so self-wounding.

"I am not a peasant," he told his son. "I am not one of those men you see portrayed at the theater in Paris, who buries his gold in a sock and never buys a bonnet for his wife. I am a businessman who understands the modern world."

From upstairs, Jacques could still hear his father's business murmur. It was true that he was not a peasant, though his parents had been; true too, that he was not the miser of the popular imagination, though partly because the amount of gold he had to hoard was not great enough: forty years of dealing had brought him a modest return, and perhaps, thought Jacques, this was why his father had forbidden him to study any further. From the age of thirteen, he had been set to work, looking after the properties, mending roofs and fences, clearing trees while his father traveled to Quimper and Vannes to cultivate new acquaintances.

Jacques looked back to his table, not wanting to waste the light of the wax candle he had begged from Tante Mathilde in place of the dingy ox-tallow which was all his father would allow him. He took the blade and began, very carefully, to make a shallow incision in the neck of a frog he had pinned, through its splayed feet, to the untreated wood. He had never attempted the operation before and was anxious not to damage what lay beneath the green skin, moist from the saline in which he had kept it. The frog was on its front, and Jacques's blade traveled smoothly up over the top of its head and stopped between the bulging eyes. He then cut two semicircular flaps to join at the nape of the neck and pushed back the pouches of peeled skin, with their pearls of eyes. Beneath his delicate touch he could see now that there was little in the way of protection for the exposed brain. He took out a magnifying glass.

What is a frog's fury? he thought, as he gazed at the tiny thinking organ his knife had exposed. It was beautiful. What does it feel for its spawn or its mate or the flash of water over its skin? The brain of an amphibian is a poor thing, the Cure had warned him; he promised that soon he would acquire the head of a cow from the slaughterhouse, and then they would have a more instructive time. Yet Jacques was happy with his frog's brain. From the side of the table he took two copper wires attached at the other end to a brass rod that ran through a cork which was in turn used to seal a glass bottle coated inside and out with foil.

"Jacques! Jacques! It's time for dinner. Come to the table!"

It was Tante Mathilde's voice; clearly Jacques had not heard the notary depart. He set down the electrodes and blew out the candle, then crossed the landing to the top of the almost-vertical wooden staircase and groped his way down by the familiar indentations of the plaster wall. His grandmother came into the parlor carrying a tureen of soup, which she placed on the table. Rebiere and his wife, known to Jacques as Tante Mathilde, were already sitting down. Rebiere drummed his knife impatiently on the wood while Grand-mÂ?re ladled the soup out with her shaking hand.

"Take a bowl out to . . ." Rebiere jerked his head in the direction of the door.

"Wait," said Grand-mere. "There's some rabbit, too."

Rebiere rolled his eyes with impatience as the old woman went out to the scullery again and returned with a second bowl that she handed to Jacques. He carried both dishes carefully to the door and took a lantern to light his way out into the darkness, watching his feet on the shiny cobbles of the yard. At the stable, he set down the food and pulled back the top half of the door; he peered in by the light of the flame and felt his nostrils fill with a familiar sensation.

"Olivier? Are you there? I've brought dinner. There's no bread again, but there's soup and some rabbit. Olivier?"

There was a sudden noise from the horse, like the rumbling clatter of a laden table being overturned, as she shifted in the stall.

"Olivier? Please. It's raining. Where are you?"

Wary of the horse, who lashed out with her hind legs if frightened, Jacques freed the bolt of the door himself and made his way into the ripe darkness of the stable.

Sitting with his back to the wall, his legs spread wide apart on the dung-strewn ground, was his brother.

"I've brought your dinner. How are you?"

Jacques squatted down next to him.

Olivier stared straight ahead, as though unaware that anyone was there. Jacques took his brother's hand and wrapped the fingers round the edge of the soup bowl, noticing what could be smears of excrement on the nails. Olivier moved his head from side to side, thrusting it back hard against the stable wall. He muttered something Jacques could not make out and began to scrape at his inner forearm as if trying to rid himself of a bothersome insect.

Jacques took a spoonful of the soup and held it up to Olivier's face. Gently, he prized open his lips and pushed the metal inward. It was too dark to see how much went into his mouth and how much trickled down his tangled beard.

"They want me to come, they keep telling me. But why should I go, when they know everything already?"

"Who, Olivier? Who does?"

Their eyes met. Jacques felt himself summed up and dismissed from Olivier's mental presence.

"Are you cold? Do you want more blankets?"

Olivier became earnest. "Yes, yes, that's it, you've got to keep warm, you've got to wrap up now the winter's coming. Look. Look at this." He held up the frayed horse blanket beneath which he slept and examined it closely, as though he had not seen it before or had suddenly been struck by its workmanship.

Then his vigor was quenched again and his gaze became still.

Jacques took his hand. "Listen, Olivier. It's nearly a year now that you've been in here. Do you think you could try again? Why don't you come out for a few minutes? I could help."

"They don't want me."

"You always say that. But perhaps they'd be happy to have you back in the house."

"They won't let me go."

Jacques nodded. Olivier was clearly talking of a different "they," and he was too frightened to contradict or to press him. He had been a child when Olivier, four years the older, started to drift away from his family; it began when, previously a lively and sociable youth, he took to passing the evenings alone in his room studying the Bible and drawing up a chart of "astral influences." Jacques was fascinated by the diagrams, which Olivier had done in his clever draftsman's hand, using pens he had taken from the hotel de ville, where he worked as a clerk.

Most of Jacques's experiences had come to him first through the descriptions of Olivier, who naturally anticipated all of them. Mathematics at school were a jumble of pointless signs, he said, that made you want to cry out; being beaten by the master's ruler on the knuckles hurt more than being kicked on the shin by the broody mare. Olivier had never been to Paris, but Vannes, he told Jacques, was so huge that you got lost the moment you let your concentration go; and it was full of women who looked at you in a strange way. When changes came to your body, Olivier said, you noticed nothing, no hairs bursting the skin, no wrench in your voice; the only difference was that you felt urgent, tense, all the time, as though about to leap a stream or jump from a high rock.

Olivier's chart of astral influences therefore looked to Jacques like another early glimpse of a universal human experience granted to him by his elder brother. Olivier had been right about everything else: in Vannes, Jacques kept himself orientated at all times, like a dog sniffing the wind; he liked mathematics, though he saw what Olivier had meant. He avoided the master's beatings.

"Where is God in this plan?" he had said, pointing with his finger. "I see the planets and their influence and this character, here, whatever his name is. But in the Bible, it says that--"

"God is here, in your head. And here." Olivier pointed to the chart. "But it's a secret."

"I don't understand," said Jacques. "If this is Earth here, this is Saturn, and here are the rings of Jupiter and this is the body you've discovered, the one that regulates the movements of people, then what are these lines here? Are these the souls of the dead going up to heaven?"

"Those are the rays of influence. They emanate from space, far beyond anything we can see. These are what control you."


"Of course. Like rays of light, or invisible waves of sound. The universe is bombarded with them. You can't hear them. You can't see them."

"Does everyone know about them? All grown-ups?"


"How do you know about them? Who told you?"

"I have been told."

Jacques looked away. Over the weeks, he discovered that Olivier's system of cosmic laws and influences was invulnerably cogent; there was in fact something of the weary sage in his manner when he answered yet another of Jacques's immature questions about it, while its ability to adapt made it impermeable to doubt. Olivier was always right, and his rightness was in the detail. Jacques was not sure that this next phase of his education, these rays and planets into which Olivier was inducting him, was one he welcomed. He believed in what he learned at church and in what the Cure told him later in their walks through the woods and down to the sea. At least, he thought he did; he believed that he believed.

"Would you like some of the rabbit? Grand-mere cooked it."

Jacques wanted the company of his brother but shrank from sitting in the fouled straw.

"Don't you want a bath, Olivier? Would you like to wash?"

"I take my bath in the sea."

"You haven't been to the sea for--"

"The water runs clear . . . Always clear."

"What do you do all day, Olivier? When I go out to work for Papa?"

He felt Olivier's breath on his cheek. "That's the trouble with the army. No time to yourself. You're up at six, and it's stand-to at six fifteen. They've sent all my clothes back to Rennes . . . But you shouldn't stand there, that's not your place."
Sebastian Faulks

About Sebastian Faulks

Sebastian Faulks - Human Traces

Photo © Jerry Bauer

Sebastian Faulks worked as a journalist for fourteen years before taking up writing full-time in 1991. In 1995 he was voted Author of the Year by the British Book Awards for Birdsong. He is also the author of Human Traces, On Green Dolphin Street, Charlotte Gray, The Fatal Englishman, The Girl at the Lion d'Or, Engleby, and the James Bond novel Devil May Care. He lives in London with his wife and three children.



"Epic in scope, yet suffused with intimate emotions, Sebastian Faulks' seventh novel is one of those rare works of fiction that satisfies on every level." —Chicago Tribune

“Complex and engrossing. . . . A leisurely, enjoyable read . . . always credible and humane.” —Rocky Mountain News

“Passages of gruesome and thrilling anatomical detail and episodes of medical casework [make Human Traces] read like the best detective fiction.” —USA Today

"A collage of science, ideas, romance, and adventure. . . . Fascinating." —The Boston Globe
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

“Epic in scope, yet suffused with intimate emotions. . . . One of those rare works of fiction that satisfies on every level.” —Chicago Tribune

The introduction, discussion questions, and suggestions for further reading that follow are designed to stimulate your group's discussion of Human Traces by Sebastian Faulks.

About the Guide

Human Traces is the engrossing tale of two men and their quest to discover what it means to be human. Set during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Faulks's novel brilliantly captures the drama behind the intellectual and social controversies spurred by Darwin's theory of evolution and breakthroughs in the study of mental illness.

Jacques Rebière, a Frenchman from an impoverished background, and Thomas Midwinter, a well-to-do Englishman, are young doctors drawn together by their shared interest in the workings of the mind and the causes—and possible cures—of madness. For Jacques, the search for answers has a very personal component: his older brother, Olivier, once his loving mentor and companion, has been confined in an asylum since adolescence. The friendship between the young men is cemented when Jacques marries Thomas's sister, Sonia. After training in institutions more focused on controlling patients than on understanding their disorders, Jacques and Thomas open a clinic in the mountains of Eastern Europe. Over the years, they develop differing theories and treatments. While Jacques embraces the psychological approach propounded by the founders of psychoanalysis in Vienna, Thomas concentrates on discovering the links between evolution and the emergence of human consciousness. Their disputes threaten their professional partnership, as well as their personal lives and the close-knit community of families and employees at the clinic.

About the Author

Sebastian Faulks is the author of seven novels, including Birdsong, Charlotte Gray, The Girl at the Lion d'Or, and On Green Dolphin Street, and a biographical study, The Fatal Englishman. He lives in London with his wife and three children.

Discussion Guides

1. Jacques and Thomas are pioneers in the field of psychiatry. How does the state of scientific research in the nineteenth century shape their expectations? Are they overly optimistic about what they can accomplish? What obstacles and limitations do they acknowledge? To what extent is all medical research driven by the belief that we can—and will—uncover the ultimate truth about the workings of the human body and mind?

2. Jacques witnesses the devastation of mental illness as a child, as his brother, Olivier, slips away little by little. Why is he the only member of the family who tries to communicate with Olivier? How does his mother's death in childbirth affect Jacques's childhood? What impact does it have on his personality as an adult?

3. What do the reactions of Tante Mathilde, the Curé, and Jacques to Olivier's violent behavior [pp. 25-31] reveal about people's beliefs about madness in the nineteenth century? How does the language of each character, as well as the descriptive imagery, reflect and emphasize the notion that, as the Curé says, “All such afflictions are part of the divine plan” [p. 30]?

4. Do the characteristics Thomas displays as a young man (his interest in literature, his restlessness as a student, and his close relationship with his family, for example) contribute to his approach to medicine and to his patients? What is the significance of the voices he hears and accepts without question [p. 45]? In what ways do his experiences at the county lunatic asylum change him?

5. Sonia and Kitty play essential roles in the success of the clinic. Is this unusual for women of their time and backgrounds? Do you think their personal experiences (Sonia's unhappy first marriage and Kitty's debilitating illness) gave them the strength and conviction to defy or overcome the limitations placed on women of the Victorian era?

6. Do Jacques and Thomas agree with Victorian notions about women and marriage? What particular incidents support your point of view?

7. Which of the central relationships in the novel—Thomas and Jacques, Thomas and Kitty, Thomas and Sonia, or Jacques and Sonia—is most compelling? Which is the most sympathetically drawn? What do the men's relationships with their wives show about each of them as individuals? Does their behavior as husbands and fathers shed light on their professional style?

8. Discuss Faulks' descriptions of the patients Thomas encounters at the county hospital, the people Jacques and Thomas treat at the Schloss Seeblick sanatorium, and the examples Charcot presents at his seminar [pp. 171-78]. What techniques does he use to bring out both scientific information (or speculation) and the human side of medical practice?

9. Dr. Faverill complains that “the communication between hospitals, the county council and the Home Office is not as it should be” [p. 190]. Is there a similar lack of communication between the medical establishment and public authorities today? If so, what impact does this have on people suffering from mental disorders?

10. Do the formal presentations of the various theories Jacques and Thomas study and, later, develop on their own interrupt the flow of the novel or are they essential to the plot and your understanding of the themes Faulks is exploring?

11. The differences between Jacques and Thomas come to a head when Thomas rejects Jacques's psychological explanation of Kitty's symptoms and rushes her to the hospital [pp. 313-34]. What does this incident—and their discussion of it [pp. 348-49]—show about the personal relationship and professional partnership they share? What does it demonstrate about the emotional and intellectual forces that drive each of them?

12. The introduction of and reaction to Darwinism is central to Human Traces. Are the discussions of its significance unique to the time and place of the novel, or are they still relevant today [pp. 416-420]? Is Thomas's argument that the persistence of dementia praecox indicates that it must somehow be “overwhelmingly advantageous to the development of the human” persuasive [p. 417]?

13. Thomas believes that mankind once literally had “the capacity to hear the voice or voices of the god” and that it was the disappearance of this trait that gave birth to religious faith [p. 220]. Do you think his interpretation of ancient literature (the Odyssey and the Iliad, as well as the stories in the Bible) is valid? Can you think of works of literature in which hearing voices (or other symptoms of insanity) represents a preternatural spiritual awareness?

14. What do Olivier's words and thoughts convey about the intellectual and emotional turmoil of schizophrenia [pp. 441-45]? What perspective do they offer on the gap between what he and other psychiatric patients understand about their conditions and the perceptions of doctors? Is Olivier's sense of self (consciousness) inhibited or enhanced by his illness?

15. Thomas discusses how scientific knowledge has changed our definition of what it means to be human [pp. 544-45]. Do you agree with his conclusion that the “fruits of our conscious brains have robbed us of any privileged place in creation”? Is it possible to reconcile Thomas's theories and the belief in a creator?

16. What role do culture, philosophy, and religion play in your own definition of “being human”? Does Human Traces provide evidence that the study of psychosis can contribute not just to our scientific knowledge of how the brain works, but also to a deeper understanding of the creativity and imagination that separates us from other creatures?

17. Although Faulks cites the work of many scientists, some well known, others quite obscure, he makes no mention of Sigmund Freud. Did you find this disconcerting? What might explain his decision to avoid direct references to the man commonly considered the “father of psychoanalysis”? What aspects of Freud's work did you recognize in the explanations and/or theories presented in the book? What do these passages reveal about Faulks's opinions of Freud?

18. Does your knowledge about recent findings and current theories regarding mental illness affect your reactions to Human Traces? Must contemporary readers “forget” what they know about particular events in history, scientific progress, and social change in order to enter the world of historical fiction? Does the experience of reading a twenty-first-century novel about the past differ from the experience of reading a novel written during the time period in which the novel is set?

19. According to the notes at the end of Human Traces, although the main characters are fictional, “all the doctors whose work is either quoted or referred to were real people and did hold the views ascribed to them [p. 651].” Does this give the novel greater meaning or impact?

Suggested Readings

Pat Barker, Regeneration; Caleb Carr, The Alienist; Timothy Findley, Pilgrim; Greg Hollingshead, Bedlam; Roger McDonald, Mr. Darwin's Shooter; Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain; Janis Cooke Newman, Mary; Nicolle Rosen, Mrs. Freud; Mark Salzman, Lying Awake; Irving Stone, Passions of the Mind; Jonathan Tel, Freud's Alphabet; D. M. Thomas, The White Hotel; Irvin D. Yalom, When Nietzsche Wept.

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