The ShortRead of 2 September
Where My Heart Used To Beat
Author: Sebastian Faulks
What's the story: Everyone needs to have read a Sebastian Faulks novel.
Birdsong is superb, a highlight amongst the altogether beautiful 'French Trilogy', which includes The Girl at the Lion d'Or and Charlotte Gray. If you didn't pick up his Bond novel, Devil May Care, you're an utter fool.
So we're doing you a favour by flagging up Where My Heart Used To Beat. Set on a small island off the south coast of France, the story follows Robert Hendricks, an English doctor who has seen the best and the worst the twentieth century had to offer. Confronting the events that made up his life, his search for sanity takes us through the war in Italy in 1944, a passionate love that seems to hold out hope, the great days of idealistic work in the 1960s and finally - unforgettably - back into the trenches of the Western Front.
Turn your phone off, kill your emails, and settle down for a good read.
Release date: 10 September
It must have been forty-eight hours after I’d written my letter of polite refusal to Pereira that I saw the corner of the envelope, still unposted, beneath some junk mail on the hall table. I pulled it out, dropped it in the wastepaper basket, sat down at my desk and began again. ‘Dear Dr Pereira, Thank you for your letter. I should be delighted . . .’
A week later, I heard back from him; and ten days after that I was on the plane.
Flights to Toulon were rare and expensive; I dog-legged via Marseille and a boxy hire car to the tip of the peninsula – what Pereira called the presqu’île, or ‘almost-island’ – to a small area where pleasure boats and water taxis berthed. Here I stood outside a scruffy place with a red awning, the Café des Pins, waiting to be collected.
What reckoning with my past had made me change my mind? I conceded now that looking back over my youth in such detail was probably a way of preparing my defences. Recent research showed that your brain came to a decision more quickly than your mind could do so and fired the relevant systems before your plodding ‘judgement’ took the credit. Overlooking the implications for free will, or the illusion of it, I was happy to accept that that had been the case with me.
I was going to meet a man who could open a door on to my past: it made me vulnerable to think a stranger might know more about myself than I did; I needed to make sure my own version of my life was in good order. At the same time, the wretched Annalisa business (such a mess of lust and fear and blocked feeling) had made me admit there were aspects of my character – or behaviour, at least – that not only were self-defeating but also inflicted pain on others. Even in my early sixties, I felt young and vigorous enough to change – to confront whatever I had yet to face; and perhaps a medical man of my father’s generation whose special interest was in memory could be the very one to help.
I was into my second cigarette when an old woman in black stopped and looked me up and down.
‘Vous êtes Dr Hendricks?’ Her accent was strongly of the Midi.
‘Venez.’ She gestured me to follow. Despite her bowed legs she moved at speed. We went down a stone jetty, past the public ferry that had tied up for the night, over a gangway and on to a boat with a white canopy. It was big enough for a dozen people, though there were only three of us on it. The third was a man in the wheelhouse, who opened the throttle and began to edge the boat out into the waters of the bay.
My French was good enough to ask how far we were going and how long it would take, but I couldn’t make out the old woman’s answers over the noise of the engine, and it seemed to me she preferred it that way. Eventually, I gave up trying to talk and instead looked back over the churning white wake to the port. Twenty minutes later, the mainland was no longer visible; we had left behind the croissant shape of Porquerolles island as we headed away from the setting sun.
(Images: Flickr/Kate Hiscock; Rex)