Beginning in 1980, Faulks's latest novel combines war-based fiction with a love story.
It focuses on an aging Englishman who visits a prostitute in New York, the encounter a catalyst for his memories of his past love and of his time serving in the Second World War. Upon returning to his flat in London, Robert Hendricks reads a letter from France, written in ink by an elderly hand. The writer is the famous neurologist Alexander Pereira, who served as an infantryman on the Western Front in World War 1.
For years, Pereira has lived in seclusion on an island off the South of France. Well into his nineties, Pereira is nearing the end of his life and wants Robert--if he is willing--to become his literary executor after his death. He also wants to tell Robert about his father, whom he knew during the war. Pereira has souvenirs: war photographs, diaries, and letters. At first suspicious, Robert decides to take Pereira up on his invitation. Amid the umbrella pines and the din of insects, Robert is welcomed by officious housekeeper Paulette, who reluctantly arranges his room and serves him dinner. Here Robert meets dark-haired Celine and, the following day, the aging Dr. Pereira, a man with
a hairless head that seems to “shine like a chestnut.”
As Pereira and Robert form a mutual appreciation society, telling each other about their respective achievements in therapy and neurosurgery, Robert outlines his youthful events and past experiences. Spending lazy days watching Celine swim naked and partaking of lavish lunches with Pereira, Robert decides to stay a little longer, challenged by the notion that he can finally talk about his difficulties--his life as
a young therapist after the war and how h,e was once so idealistic. A photo of Armentieres in March 1916 in which Robert finally sees his father as a soldier paradoxically raises questions about Robert’s own experiences on the North African Front back in 1944.
While Faulks's characterization of Robert is thoughtful and complex, Robert himself comes across as a passive bystander in his own life. Fueled by water, brandy and cigarettes, the stories to Pereira mostly leave him exhausted. Memories of incidents that he had thought closed begin to stir in his mind, and he not so much recalls the events
as begins to relive them. Amid the rifle and machine-gun fire and the blood and the killing, Faulks creates a slow-building unease that defines much of Robert’s post-war life.
Robert’s affair with Luisa seems dreamlike before her own complications take her away. Wounded at Anzio, Robert survives the war--barely--while is Luisa transposed from “the chiaroscuro of his memory to the strip light of the present.”
Luisa’s absence defines Robert’s life post-war and gives identity to his adult existence and its stunted relationships: “she was still indeed the missing heart of me.” The heartache of the novel becomes almost overwhelming; we find ourselves thinking of our own small moments of happiness in the same way that Robert does.
As Robert discovers more about his father, we learn about Robert’s journeys through life, from his childhood with his mother and a father who was fighting over in France to a house with draughty passages and brick-floored yards, to his time working as a therapist in hospitals in Bristol and later in Birmingham, where Robert demonstrated a willingness to work with intractable cases. Part of Robert’s story is his refusal to accept the reality of what he has seen in battle, a denial that fuels his need to help his patients and perhaps achieve something that will change the way we look at our sicknesses and at ourselves. Faulks juxtaposes Robert’s career glories with his painful personal heartache in a world personified by a “century of psychosis.”
Faulks's style is always elegant and evocative, even when the book sometimes degenerates into clichéd sexual imagery in the manner of soft-romance fiction. Still, Faulks does a good job of relating the grand social interactions of the individual on the warfront. The driving story and best-imagined scenes are set well underneath the ground where the minor characters--Robert’s war buddies--give the author a way to address the greater themes of Robert’s life and setting.