Sebastian Faulks latest novel is an evocative portrayal of Austria in wartime

Sebastian Faulks is brilliant at evoking wartime drama. Picture: Getty Images
Sebastian Faulks is brilliant at evoking wartime drama. Picture: Getty Images
  • Snow Country, by Sebastian Faulks. Hutchinson, $32.99.

Sebastian Faulks' new novel, like his earlier and hugely successful novels Birdsong and Charlotte Gray, is set in a Europe at war.

But instead of being focused on the UK and France, as the others were, Snow Country is set mainly in Austria from 1914 to 1933, a tumultuous period in Europe's history - and in the lives of the main characters.

The second book in a planned Austrian trilogy, Snow Country is a self-contained novel that can be read alone.

Written in five parts, it focuses on the intersecting lives of three protagonists, Anton, Lena, and Rudolf.

While they are each Austrian, they are from very different walks of life.

The first part of the novel is from the viewpoint of Anton as a young man beginning his life as a journalist, travelling to South America, and afterwards to Paris just before the declaration of war, to cover the trial of Henriette Caillaux, wife of the Finance Minister, who is accused of assassinating the editor of Le Figaro.

Before these trips, Anton falls deeply in love with a French woman, Delphine, but with the declaration of war their lives are divided, and Anton goes to fight with his countrymen.

Soon we are introduced to Lena, the illegitimate child of an alcoholic mother, who movingly struggles through a poor and difficult childhood, gaining little in the way of education but with an innate artistic talent.

The third main character is Rudolf Plichke, a lawyer, Lena's one-time lover, and a political activist.

The novel is set mainly in Vienna and in a sanatorium at Schloss Seeblick, that specialises in treatments for mental health.

The sanatorium connects all three characters: Lena goes there to work as a maid, Anton to write an article on the history and the ideas behind treatment at the sanatorium, and Rudolf to offer legal advice.

Through Rudolf, the reader learns of political events in Austria in the early 1930s and the emergence of Dollfuss, the Austrian chancellor. Through Anton we learn of Austria just before the First World War:

"The Vienna Parliament had thirty parties speaking ten different languages - with no translators. That wasn't even an entity, let alone one worth dying for. It was a Babel. With a crazy old Emperor riding back and forth between his palaces in a horse-drawn carriage."

The novel becomes especially interesting when Anton finishes his article about the sanatorium at Schloss Seeblick and stays on voluntarily as a patient.

He undergoes a spell of psychoanalysis with Martha, who runs the hospital, and their conversations are particularly revealing of Anton's character and his wartime and sexual experiences.

The sections about the First World War and life in the trenches for Anton - scarred by his past and his search for his old love Delphine - are powerful writing.

Anton's disaffection is reflected in his words to Martha: "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."

The novel's treatment of patients' mental illnesses is also very good. Information about mental illness and attitudes of the time are revealed to the reader mainly through discussions between Anton and Martha.

Faulks does a brilliant job in evoking the Austria of that time. But although there is much to like about this character-driven novel, it is not his best.

There are several areas that I found slow; for example, Lena is an interesting character in her own right but her connection with the two main male characters seems a little implausible given her background and theirs.

Towards the end, when the characters have become more engaged in their emotions, there was a disconnect between the characters and the reader, and I found this emotionally distancing.

The book is at its most successful when it is dealing with ideas of that time and its evocation of Austria.

Anton's words to Martha might particularly resonate with readers as we live through the second year of our pandemic:

"I believe that we are lost, at the mercy of chance and that history laughs at our attempts to make a pattern or a plan. You end with your legs blown off. Dying of the influenza. Or in a dementia ward, dribbling and alone. That is what life is. But if I can believe that I carry the essence of others who have lived before and that it doesn't threaten me but in fact enriches me... then I would be whole."

  • Alison Booth's latest novel, The Painting, is set in Sydney and Budapest towards the end of the Cold War.
This story Evocative of wartime in Austria first appeared on The Canberra Times.