The evolution of psychiatric treatment is explored through the intertwined lives of two 19th-century men.
Faulks’s epic is as daunting as the path of his main characters. Frenchman Jacques Rebiere, fascinated by science, is brother to Olivier, whose slow descent into madness from middle childhood drives Jacques’s search for answers. Englishman Thomas Midwinter is desperate to escape the life planned out for him by his domineering parents. Early in their period of discovery, the two cross paths in a chance meeting precipitated by Sonia, Thomas’s older sister. The men’s conversation through their language barrier is the start of a long and productive partnership. Faulks (On Green Dolphin Street, 2002, etc.) takes great care in constructing his latest work to fit the narrative style of the period of which he writes. He uses lengthy scenes and a vast array of characters. Perspective shifts occasionally seem awkward: third-person narrative, letters, journal entries, first-person perspective, speeches. The story tracks the nascent profession across Europe and around the world. Each man is on an individual search for meaning, and their experiences run the gamut of dramatic moments. There are loves lost and found, career successes and failure, times of camaraderie and of estrangement. Behind the players, Faulks explores the evolution of thought about . . . thought. The time period covers the shedding of the old ways of thinking and the shift to a new respect for the power of the human mind. The change was arduous at times. The central theme for the author seems to be the delicate balance between the strength of the human spirit and the frailty of human emotion. Logic and reason will be challenged by love in all its forms. Though the work is somewhat confined by the period framework, Faulks paints a tableux of 19th-century life that is remarkably revealing.
Epic in scope, this is an imaginative look at the rise of medicine for the mind.