Monday, February 01, 2016

Where My Heart Used to Beat

I have long considered Sebastian Faulks to be the go-to author when it comes to fiction delving into the mindset of soldiers faced with the trench warfare experience of World Wars I and II.  His most successful, and I think his most compelling, books, The Girl at the Lion d’Or, Birdsong, and Charlotte Gray, have all focused on the war experience of soldiers and civilians.

Where My Heart Used to Beat does cover more of that ground, but does it from the perspective of a World War II veteran looking backward from present day 1980.  Via this look-back, Faulks shows precisely the war’s effect on the book’s main character, Robert Hendricks, a man very much shaped by his war experiences – whether or not he wants to admit it to himself.  Now a successful London psychiatrist with a respected book in the field to his credit, Hendricks lives a solitary life on his own.  He is a man with few friends, none of them close, who seldom thinks about his past.

That all changes – rather drastically – when Hendricks receives a letter from a tiny island off the coast of France from Dr. Alexander Pereira, an elderly neurologist who commanded Hendricks’s father in the trenches of World War I.  Hendricks reluctantly agrees to visit the old man in his island home in order to hear what the retired doctor can tell him about his father, who never came home from that war.  But as it turns out, Dr. Pereira has much more than that in mind.  Through long, detailed conversations between the men, in which Dr. Pereira often assumes the role of therapist and Hendricks the role of patient, we learn of Hendricks’s wartime experiences and how they so uncannily parallel those of his father’s one generation earlier.  

Author Sebastian Faulks
Much of Where My Heart Used to Beat takes place in present day 1980 where the reader witnesses the rather aimless existence of Robert Hendricks, now in his mid-sixties and near the end of his professional career.  The ordinariness and somberness of Hendricks’s lifestyle in the present pale in comparison to what he experienced as a young man, making his accounts of the war to Dr. Pereira even more compelling than they would have otherwise been.  This is very much a book about warfare and its effect on those who survive it.

Where My Heart Used to Beat is full of characters – perhaps too many characters, because even some of the most interesting of them seem to disappear almost as soon as they pass through Hendricks’s world.  Faulks seems to be reminding the reader that such is life, that people come and go at such a pace that even the interesting ones manage to escape us rather easily.  In contrast, the book’s three main characters (Hendricks, Pereira, and the young Italian woman Hendricks meets during the war) will leave readers with much to ponder long after the novel has been read.  Where My Heart Used to Beat is a complicated, introspective novel that will enhance Faulk’s already solid reputation as one of the finest historical fiction writers of his generation. 


  1. Thank you for this review, Sam. I have a couple of Faulks's books here which I have never read yet. But I am great fan of the kind of deep war novels, a la Tim O'Brien, for instance, that you are describing here with this review. I will keep an eye out for Where My Heart Used To Be now.

    1. Oops. Where My Heart Used To BEAT, I mean. My bad.

    2. Faulks does a particularly good job of putting you in the trenches with the soldiers and behind the lines with the Resistance, Cip. I really like his historical fiction...his contemporary fiction not as much.