Sebastian Faulks regularly delivers an engrossing read, beautifully written and meticulously researched, often about some interesting aspect of history. The history never takes over the story – it’s always about the characters – but it gives you a very well imagined stage upon which the characters reveal themselves.
Snow Country is the second book in a trilogy, the first of which, Human Traces, completely passed me by. Published in 2005, Human Traces is about two friends, one English, one French, both fascinated by the workings of the mind. They go into psychiatry together, develop an asylum in Austria. Of course, Austria is where Freud worked, Vienna the birthplace of psychoanalysis. But Europe is about to be torn apart by the First World War.
Picking up Snow Country, it doesn’t matter at all if you haven’t read the first book – Faulks fills you in with everything you need to know, through the eyes of its two main characters. Anton escapes his bourgeois upbringing and his parents’ plan for him to take over his father’s sausage empire to study philosophy in Vienna. He starts submitting articles to newspapers, with an eye to becoming a journalist. Here he meets Delphine, a piano teacher, older and more sophisticated than Anton, but perhaps her charm lies in the secrets she hides. World War One intervenes and the two are separated, leaving Anton at sea emotionally as well as traumatised by his experiences at the front.
Lena couldn’t be more different from Delphine. Barely literate, she’s the child of an alcoholic mother who scrapes a living doing menial work and occasional prostitution. But Lena has the determination to make something of herself and sets her sights on Rudolph a law student who finds her a job for a respectable clothing merchandiser. Through Lena and Rudolph we get a snapshot of the political situation in Vienna post-war as the Nazi regime comes to power in Germany. While Rudolph is a politically active idealist, Lena lives for the moment, is open-hearted and spontaneous.
The stories of Lena and Anton eventually converge at an asylum by a lake, the Schloss Seeblick where Lena, escaping Vienna, takes a job, and where Anton is to research an article. The setting is oddly calming for both of them and drives each of them to dare to plan a different future. Anton has thoughtful conversations with Martha, the daughter of one of the asylum’s founders, now a trained psychotherapist.
…I have come to have a low view of the human creature, the male in particular. He seems to be a deformed animal.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘We are obsessive,’ Anton said. ‘We appear to have bigger brains than other creatures, but we behave in a way that’s contrary to our own interests. These harmful passions that drive us mad with love or with the need to slaughter one another. We don’t seem very well … evolved.’
As you might expect, Faulks takes the reader to some interesting places, such as the building of the Panama Canal, a huge undertaking that risks the lives of its labour force daily. Anton covers the story for a newspaper, as well as a murder trial in Paris. There’s a strong emotional pull too – both Lena and Anton are in their own ways broken hearted, suffering tragedy or loss. It’s a very moving book, as well as historically interesting, and gives you a lot to think about.
Snow Country isn’t the kind of book you race through to see what happens. The writing is such a joy it is worth taking your time over it. But you can’t help wondering how much of what is going on here is a set-up for the third book. I envisage World War II will have a part to play. In the meantime I am curious to check out Human Traces, and hope we don’t have to wait another decade or two before Book Three. This one gets a four and a. half out of five from me.