Where My Heart Used To Beat is the latest novel from one of my favourite writers, Sebastian Faulks. The book title is itself a partial quote from the poem In Memoriam by Tennyson: “where my heart was used to beat/So quickly, waiting for a hand.”
The “I” in the title is the book’s narrator and central character, Robert Hendricks, an English psychiatrist. The world he was brought up in was “work and church and money and family and being decent to other people.” It was a world he understood. And the Twentieth Century took it all away. “Now I don’t know anything,” he says in the book’s final pages.
If you read the book (and you should), you’ll appreciate that Hendricks’s isn’t a life lived ordinary. But perhaps the conclusion he reaches is a common one. If we are allowed to live long enough, don’t we all get the chance to look back on the world we were brought up in, and discover it gone?
Here’s a little anecdote to illustrate (stop me if I’ve told it to you before, won’t you?) Not long before I left school, we had a careers evening. Advisers spent an hour or so attempting to fit round pegs into various square holes (or was it the other way around? I forget.)
Whatever. I ended up in front of one chap who smiled the sadly gentle smile of one who looks you over and knows his task is hopeless, and asked me what I wanted to do with my life.
“Be a journalist,” I replied. This took him aback. We gazed at each other across the divide. Finally he spoke: “Have you thought about working for the Coal Board?” he asked.
I admitted I had not. I wondered if that would help me achieve my life’s ambition of being a newspaper reporter and using my Press card to get free entry to the nightclubs where the girls with the knowledgeable eyes were.
“I don’t think so,” he said. “But I don’t know anything about journalism, and I have a lot of these leaflets from the Coal Board to get rid of.”
I took a leaflet and made to depart. “And remember,” he said; “working for the Coal Board in South Wales means you have got a job for life.”
I didn’t join the Coal Board. I joined the local paper. And spent many of my cub days reporting on yet another coal mine closing its gates for the last time as the industry collapsed, and thousands of jobs-for-life turned out to be nothing of the sort. Worlds change; certainties cease.
Now my own former way of working life is afflicted; newspaper circulations plummet, and the readers we thought were there for life find other ways to get the information (or misinformation) that they want. As they depart, they take so many journalists’ jobs with them. Worlds change; certainties cease.
Being a Faulks novel, of course, it hardly limits itself to one idea. It is about memory; what we choose to forget, as much as what we choose to remember, and how those selected memories shape and mould our lives.
It is about how “young men are not deterred by the failure of their fathers,” and how young people are inflamed with “the intoxicating belief that we might really do better than our parents.”
And it is about the sober realisation that at the end, “(my) life would always be a chain of transitions, with no design to be revealed.” Perhaps this is another piece of self-knowledge that, given enough time, everybody reaches.
And finally, the recognition that “As everyone of more than forty-five knows, older people don’t think of themselves as such; they stay locked at twenty-nine or thirty-three or some such sprightly age.” Speaking personally, I’m comfortable at twenty-eight and I’m staying there.
Perhaps not everybody under forty-five should read this book (at least, not yet). Everybody over forty-five, however, should read it without delay.