Towards the end of the last century, there was a vogue for brick-thick novels on scientific themes, swelled by a proliferation of detail that one sensed was intended to ward off accusations of dilettantism rather than for any literary purpose. One of the last hurrahs of this subgenre was Sebastian Faulks’s whopping Human Traces (2005): an attempt to dramatise, over the course of 800 pages, the early history of psychiatry and psycho-analysis through the story of two doctors working at a fictional clinic, the Schloss Seeblick in the Eastern Alpine region of Austria.
In a recent interview, Faulks recalled that "it was a long, difficult book with lots of lectures about psychiatry and I always felt there was an easier book there". Now comes the advent of the easier book, happily coinciding with a period in which readers are demanding that literary fiction be more immersive than educative.
Snow Country, which Faulks describes in an author’s note as "the second book in a planned Austrian trilogy", is well under half the length of Human Traces, but although it covers less intellectual ground than its predecessor, it is still an ambitious work, spanning decades and continents.
We begin with a canter through the early manhood of Anton Heideck, scion of a provincial sausage-making dynasty, starting with his arrival in Vienna as a student in 1906 and following his subsequent progress as a journalist reporting on the construction of the Panama Canal and the Henriette Caillaux murder trial in Paris.
Just as it looks like Faulks is about to return to the crowd-pleasing territory of Birdsong with Anton called up to fight in the Great War, he shifts to the potted biography of another character: Lena, illegitimate daughter of an alcoholic mother.
Putting the march of history on fast-forward often sees Faulks on his best form, and these episodic early chapters are pacy and involving. Nevertheless, they’re hors d’oeuvres; the meat of the book comes a third or so in when we make a return visit to the Schloss Seeblick.
We’re now in the early 1930s and the clinic is being run by Martha Midwinter, daughter of one of its co-founders. Anton pitches up to write an article about the Schloss; Lena secures a job there as a maid. Despite their non-patient status, the pair end up benefiting from Martha’s talking therapies, with Anton opening up about – ah, here they are! – the horrors of the trenches. What links them both, though, is the lack of wholeness they feel because of the absence of loved ones: in Anton’s case, the French girlfriend who abruptly disappeared at the start of the war; in Lena’s, the father she barely knew.
It’s a pleasure to be back at the snow-capped Schloss, which Faulks manages to evoke as a beguiling mix of the gothic and the cosy (possessed of "a warmth in the timbers and the tiles"), and to revisit old friends among the staff and patients.
The trajectory of Human Traces was a sad one, beginning with the hope of a new dawn in which mental illness would be vanquished, and ending with a war that seemed to prove the species was irredeemably warped. Snow Country, by contrast, comes to a conclusion of realistically muted optimistic, paying tribute to those who refuse to give up the battle to help individuals in times of mass misery, and showing how the compassionate approach of Martha offers an alternative to the doctrinaire and misogynistic practices of the early Freudians.
This time around, Faulks approaches his serious themes with a far lighter touch, and the result is a book that reminds us novelists are better suited to showing rather than telling when it comes to illuminating the mysteries of the human mind.