I loved, loved, loved Birdsong, Sebastian Faulks’ novel about the horrors of the First World War that managed a complex love story at the same time. Where My Heart Used to Beat is also a meditation on the experience of war, but with a look at the lingering psychological damages many years after. Less of a war story than Birdsong, this novel’s protagonist, Robert, is also less likeable. He’s a medical doctor specialising in psychiatry who’s melancholic and unable to form meaningful relationships. At the start, he thinks and leads the reader to think that this emotional paralysis is due to the heartbreak he experienced while on leave in Italy. But as the story progresses, he finds himself undergoing a sort of talk therapy that makes him revisit his battle field experiences and to some extent those of his father, who died fighting in WWI. With this, his malaise takes on a new perspective and is part of a larger re-evaluation of the his life.
The narrative structure relays these events in ways that make this a page-turner and keeps Faulks on the ‘popular fiction’ bookshelves. But Robert is a self-made scholar whose interests in the classics and philosophy, set alongside the burgeoning field of psychology, make this a deeper, more literary read. In these ways, it stands up to Birdsong, but for me, didn’t have quite the emotional impact as this earlier work. And there were a couple of minor technical flaws in Where My Heart Used to Beat surprisingly not picked up by the literary editor. But for Faulks’ fans, a worthwhile read. all the same..