Where my Heart Used to Beat by Sebastian Faulks

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In Where My Heart Used to Beat, we witness the transformation of protagonist Robert Hendricks’s ideas on memory and its place within the present. This journey takes us through the twentieth century, memories of which still haunt many of our generation; a century of death, genocides, pogroms, purges, slaughters, the holocaust – a century best forgotten.

Many philosophies of memory and humanity are explored and debated throughout the novel, allowing the reader to come to their own conclusion on the topics in light of the events. One powerful philosophy proposed is by Faulks’ character Alexander Pereira, who argues that present experiences should be enriched by past experiences. If past experiences are to be dismissed as invalid this leads to repetitive mistakes, evidenced by the First and Second World Wars.

A running idea throughout the book is that the survivors of World War One were the beginning of a generation who had to come to terms with the fact if we could orchestrate such atrocities upon each other were no longer able to declare ourselves the superior beings, that in fact we would have to declare ourselves as the most inferior. The century that ensued after 1918 is used as evidence for such a damning declaration, as we realised that we shouldn’t hold humanity in such high esteem. The genetic mutation which gave us consciousness and self-awareness, rather than lifting us to the top of the evolutionary chain, has damned us to live with the memory of where our heart used to beat and left us marked by the terrible knowledge of all of humanity’s past crimes.

This mark upon humanity is seen intensely through Robert Hendricks’s eyes. Robert constantly declares his wish to be able to travel back to an older Europe unconnected to the barbarism of the twentieth century. He wishes to shut off his mind from nostalgia, as he does not believe there is anything of the twentieth century to be nostalgic about.

Faulks also delves deeply into the problematic question of love. Robert has no easy ride in this area and therefore his bleak outlook on love is not surprising; to him, love consists of nothing more than misfired chemicals, a fault of the brain. Rather than viewing this as a depressing conclusion, Robert, a victim of the horrors of the twentieth century, initially finds a strange solace in thinking of love in this un-romantic, scientific way. Yet as the novel progresses this definition of love comes under intense scrutiny and Roberts’s acceptance of it turns out to be his fatal flaw.

The novel’s exploration of the relationship between the body and mind is one of its most powerful aspects. While the past tense of the title where my heart used to beat hints at multiple meanings, the strongest message Faulks evokes is that, despite believing that emotions are purely physical, the title constantly reminds us of Robert’s mistake; the beating of his heart means nothing, may as well not really beat at all, unless he accepts that his life is and means more than just the physical beating of his heart.

A search for a sense of sanity in an insane world plays an important role in the novel. Robert is a psychiatrist and some of the most philosophical passages of the novel arise out of his questioning the nature of a mentally ill mind. How is this mind different from the minds of those classified as sane? The novel ultimately questions whether perhaps those who live in their own ‘mad’ worlds are the sanest as they’ve lived disconnected from the mad twentieth century.

The novel ultimately illustrates that your sense of sanity and self depends entirely on how you choose, or are able, to remember the past. You must allow your heart to continue beating in the present by not allowing it to remain unaffected and permanently where it used to beat in the past.

Faulks explores deeply problematic and difficult philosophical questions throughout the novel, in an accessible and illuminating manner. Their need to be answered is made clear through the progress of Roberts journey. The novel ultimately explores such topics in order for our generation to move on from the twentieth century, with our hearts still beating not just out of necessity but because we still have something to live for.

Where My Heart Used to Beat (Hutchinson) will be released on September 10 2015.

By Jenny Stearne