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Historical novel set in Austria

28th October 2021

Snow Country by Sebastian Faulks, historical novel set in Austria.

This is a loose follow up to Human Traces and a trilogy is planned. As ever, the writing is beguiling. It is a story of the workings of the human mind and cognisance, focussing on relationships and bound by the confluence of major world events.

The novel starts in the early 20th Century and moves through the first couple of decades. Soon WW1 is looming. Anton Heideck meets Frenchwoman Delphine and their relationship develops into a deep love. However, the French are on the opposite side and Delphine disappears, ironically whilst he is in Paris, leaving him distraught. After a stint in the army during the war, he develops into a writer of some note, and he next pops up in Carinthia (Kärnten) when the war is but a distant memory. He is at Schloss Seeblick, a lakeside building that is a sanatorium, and it first featured in Human Traces.

We follow the story not only of Anton, but of Lena, who has not had an easy childhood and her experience of men has really not been positive. She is desperate to connect with her absent father, and ultimately ends up working in the sanatorium, where her mother also once worked. How life can come full circle! It is the circularity of human life that is one of the themes of the novel, the wars come and go, countries teeter, go to the brink and come back, whilst knowledge, like the wheels on a vehicle, continues to move on.

As political and societal changes ensue, the characters have to adapt and develop. There are historical touchstones which anchor the storytelling, but the people can often be far removed from the world maelstrom, simply just trying to live their lives. All the main characters, including Martha (who runs the sanatorium and happens to be the daughter of one of the founders) and Rudolf (an activist, whose ideology is in stark contrast to the ruling party), slide in and out of the narrative, pass through, perhaps leave their mark, but it is the psychological nature of humanity that has clearly gripped the author.

By the 1930s things have changed significantly in the study of mental health but Freud’s hypothesising is still a major cornerstone. The culture at Schloss Seeblick now needs considerable adjustment. This is not a plot driven novel but it is telling of ideas and exchanges, with history and psychology adding a rich dimension.

The book hovers around in the first half, I would say, and then gets into its stride as it moves through the years; and of course, before long, political tumult is unfolding in a neighbouring country. The writing, as anticipated, is exquisite and the story at some levels can quite demanding of the reader.

Tina for the TripFiction Team

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