Lonely hearts club members seeking comfort should go elsewhere. Sebastian Faulks weaves a suave mystery that commands sustained attention, while simultaneously depicting the emotional plight of the socially isolated hero. It’s a compulsive read, in both psychological and emotional terms, but the reader is not invited to sob on the author’s shoulder.
Dr Hendricks, world-weary psychiatrist, has seen (and heard) it all. Difficult childhood, harrowing wartime experience, and the woes of unhappy patients notwithstanding, he retains intellectual discipline. And kindness. Passion is a memory, rather than a constant in his occasional affairs with sundry women. Then this man of solitude receives an invitation from an unknown psychiatrist, which hints at revelations concerning Hendricks’ dead father. Would Dr Hendricks care to visit an island off the Italian coast where his host, Dr Alexander Pereira, will explain?
All very novelettish, but the reference to the father is simply the bait for a suggestion that Hendricks become the literary executor of the aged Pereira’s estate. It seems they have both, unknown to each other, been pursuing vaguely corresponding personal theories on the treatment of mental patients.
The two men probe each other’s minds and memories with professional caution, and a bit of point-scoring on contrasting confessional techniques. Hendricks was a toddler when his father died, and he was raised by a mother who, memorably, always expected the worst.
The boy was bright, gained a place at university, and then World War II intervened. Young infantry officer Hendricks made lifelong friends in the trenches. Some did not survive. Wounded and shocked by the horrors of the Anzac disaster, Hendricks imagined echoes of his sorely missed father’s oddly enigmatic death. Dr Pereira, all these years later, appears to know more about the father’s fate than at first he is prepared to say.
Hendricks wonders how much of his own psychiatric work has been driven by a refusal to accept the realities of what he had seen in war. In a rare encounter with a retired officer he says: “That’s why I never went back, never went to reunions. It was my way of saying I won’t be defined by this experience. I didn’t ever want to allow
myself to complete the sentence you just started.”
“You couldn’t see what we saw and still…”
“Yes. That one.”
And yet, the psychology student that was the young Hendricks retained sufficient idealism to identify with the scholars who did a bit of lateral thinking and managed to decipher ancient language tablets at Knossos. They inspired a hope, as he pounded down asylum corridors “among the wails and shouts and banging doors”, that he would have a similar moment of enlightenment, to the benefit of the patients.
There are echoes of John Fowles’s The Magus in the magical beauty of the remote island setting for the discussions and negotiations of the two men. A shameless nude bather on the beach seems entirely appropriate in context. Especially when she appears subsequently at dinner. Clothed. But then, the haunted ex-soldier has seen it all before. Or has he?
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