Combining as it does the cultural narrative of a complex century forsaken by God and certainty, a serious investigation of the vulnerability of the human mind and an old-fashioned – in the best sense – story of love and war, this is an ambitious, demanding and profoundly melancholy novel.
Alas, the only sections with any vigor or narrative substance are those concerning Hendricks’s war and his one true, though broken, romance. The rest of the novel is an unmeshed assemblage of case histories, accounts of Hendricks’s psychiatric practice, expositions of his theories: his own and those of Dr. Pereira.
Planting clues and dangling red herrings as though he were writing a murder mystery, Faulks expertly crafts a harrowing portrait of Hendricks as a man defined by loss: first of his father, then of comrades slaughtered on the battlefields of North Africa and Europe, and finally of the Italian woman he falls in love with towards the war’s close.
It’s all so very straightforward and self-explanatory and biscuit bland, you can’t help expecting, especially in light of the novel’s unsettled opening, that this presentation is meant to conceal a mind and a life profoundly fraught by difficult memories, but this is never the case. Rather, Hendricks knows himself far too well and tells us much too much about things that matter far too little, as when he describes beginning his book on the chaotic 20th century: 'I typed the first word. It was It.' Faulks’s novel is accomplished in its historical war sequences, but when it comes to its intellectual demands, this is it.
Where My Heart Used to Beat is a funny book. It has wonderful strengths, especially Faulks’ lucid, philosophical voice, and it’s filled with scenes of genuine power, particularly those set in battles. On the other hand, its large gestures, including Robert and Luisa’s affair and Pereira’s slow-burning revelations about Robert’s father, never quite cohere into anything as believable as the tales in Birdsong or A Possible Life, the author pressing toward poignancy rather than letting it emerge from his story.