Where My Heart Used to Beat

Written by Sebastian Faulks
Review by Lorraine Norwood

A retired doctor flees London for the south of France but can’t escape his own buried trauma. That is the core story in this moving novel, and yet there is so much more: the paradox that humans as a higher life form commit horrible atrocities, the power of the mind to erase, and the decision to retreat from life and love as a means of coping. Above all, this is a melancholy novel examining the damage inflicted on young men by the horrors of war.

As the novel begins, Dr. Robert Hendricks summons a prostitute to a borrowed apartment for what becomes an unsatisfying encounter. While this opening is off-putting and does nothing to endear the reader to this emotionally unattractive English psychiatrist, the reader begins to understand him as the novel progresses and to have sympathy for his damaged soul. Haunted by a love affair and his memories of conflict in World War II, Hendricks has shut his emotions away and is alienated from everyone. Although his career involves helping others, he is entirely incapable of helping himself.

When he receives an invitation to visit Alexander Pereira, a neuroscientist living on a Mediterranean island who’s interested in memory and consciousness, Hendricks hesitates. But Pereira reveals that he knew Hendricks’s father, who was killed in the last weeks of WWI, when Hendricks was two. Hendricks accepts the invitation as a chance to reveal more of his father’s life. Under Pereira’s guidance, however, Hendricks slowly begins to thaw and talk about his wartime experiences.

Faulks, the acclaimed author of Birdsong, writes incredibly vivid and harrowing scenes of war. Portrayals of combat are savage and brutal; the camaraderie and dialogue are touching and realistic. Although the novel suffers from uneven pacing and plot points, readers who enjoy intelligent literary works that take on difficult topics will enjoy Faulks’ latest novel of memory, love and war.