This is a sequel to Faulks’s 2005 novel Human Traces. Given that there has been a 16-year hiatus between the two books, it is just as well that the author states at the beginning of the book that it can be read as a standalone volume. I read Human Traces, and it is indeed quite a challenge to resurrect the first book from the depths of one’s memory; fortunately, reading this book does not depend upon a knowledge of the plot and characters of the first volume. The plot is initially split into two separate strands, which are quite long, like a novella. The reader anticipates that these independent narratives will be joined later in the story, but it does make at first for a compartmented tale.
Anton Heideck is a young journalist in Vienna trying to make his way in the world as Europe slips into the catastrophe of The Great War. In another strand, Lena (family name unknown) comes from an impoverished background in a provincial town in Austria and is drawn to Vienna in the years following the end of the War. In 1933, through quite different life trajectories, both are drawn towards the asylum (but not as patients) at Seeblick Schloss. There they reflect upon their own lives, and we also pick up the story from the original book again, retracing the themes of how, as necessarily individual sentient beings, we can find some connection, some way of surviving and making an authentic existence for oneself, while at the same time coping with the existential problem that is encapsulated on page 178: “the human mind has evolved in a way that makes it unable to deal with the pain of its own existence. No other creature is like this”
The book ends in Vienna in 1934, with the scope for another installment – I just hope it does not take another 16 years!