Sebastian Faulks’s 2005 novel, Human Traces, made explicit his ongoing fascination with the mystery of human consciousness and the forces – historical, political and biological – that converge to shape an individual life. Its two central characters, Thomas Midwinter and Jacques Rebière, are psychiatrists with opposing views on maladies of the mind who pool their expertise to found a state-of-the-art sanatorium in the Austrian mountains at the end of the 19th century.
Sixteen years on, Faulks has returned to the terrain of Human Traces, geographically and thematically, with his new novel, Snow Country, the second in a planned Austrian trilogy that spans the first half of the 20th century and the reshaping of Europe through war. This will be familiar territory to fans of Faulks’s hugely successful Birdsong trilogy, but with Snow Country – despite a highly charged opening scene in a field hospital – his focus is less on the frontline drama of warfare than the prelude and aftermath of conflict, and the narrative moves between corresponding states of foreboding and reflection, rarely looking directly at the great war itself.
We know what the characters only suspect: political optimism is misplaced in 1930s Vienna
The story is told episodically. In the years leading up to the war, Anton Heideck arrives in Vienna to study and later to pursue a career in journalism, though he drifts through his days without much sense of purpose until he falls in love with Delphine Fourmentier, an older French woman who “made him feel interesting, even to himself”. Their happiness is short-lived; in 1914, while Anton is sent to Paris on assignment, war is declared and when he returns to Austria, Delphine has disappeared, leaving him with “the sense that my own life, like hers, was over”.
Meanwhile, through the war years, Lena grows up in poverty with her alcoholic mother. She has little education but some talent for painting, and attracts the attention of Rudolf, a young lawyer and radical who persuades her to move to Vienna and join the cause, but drops her after they sleep together. Lonely and adrift, Lena dabbles in occasional prostitution, before returning to her home town to take over her mother’s job as a cleaner at the Schloss Seeblick, Midwinter and Rebière’s sanatorium in Carinthia, now run by Thomas’s capable daughter, Martha.
In 1933, as democracy in Austria begins to crumble, Anton arrives at the Schloss Seeblick to write an article about the declining fortunes of European psychiatry. Here, he discovers the letters of Rebière, who seems to share his own preoccupation with the idea of a universal human memory (a theory Faulks previously explored in his 2012 novel, A Possible Life).
Through the gradual convergence of his characters’ lives, Faulks powerfully evokes the mood of a continent that still has not processed its collective trauma, even as the threat of another looms. “This is not the great age of belief any more,” Martha tells Anton. “We’re a third of the way through the new century. But the great advance in medicine and science has stopped. Instead, we’re trying to understand the death of 10 million men.”
And yet, she says, “hope is what we live in.” We know what the characters only suspect: political optimism is misplaced in 1930s Vienna (Rudolf’s socialist ideals are crushed, Anton is asked at the end to cover a rally in Nuremberg). But on a smaller, human scale, there is still hope: patients can be helped, lovers can find one another, old wounds can be salved. When the surgeon in the opening scene is asked if his patient will survive, he replies: “Of course he will. Poor soul” – a sentiment echoed at the end, when one character says of his future children: “Poor things.” In Snow Country, Faulks has created a richly melancholic novel of ideas that celebrates the pity, the comedy and the beauty of our brief lives.
• Snow Country by Sebastian Faulks is published by Hutchinson (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply