Times when life can make or break you

A Pos­si­ble Life

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Liam Dav­i­son Liam Dav­i­son

By Se­bas­tian Faulks Hutchin­son, 277pp, $32.95

SE­BAS­TIAN Faulks’s A Pos­si­ble Life is pre­sented as his 11th novel. As such, it in­vites a way of read­ing that sets up cer­tain ex­pec­ta­tions, ones that are not en­tirely re­alised. This is not to say that those fa­mil­iar with Faulks’s par­tic­u­lar style of well­re­searched, of­ten ro­man­ti­cised, his­tor­i­cal drama will be dis­ap­pointed.

Faulks is a con­sum­mate sto­ry­teller who rarely misses a beat when it comes to pace, and he can cap­ture a scene with deft ob­ser­va­tion and de­tail. It’s no co­in­ci­dence that he was com­mis­sioned to write the 2008 James Bond novel Devil May Care, largely on the back of his suc­cess­ful An­glo-French tril­ogy The Girl at the Lion d’Or, Bird­song and Char­lotte Gray.

But the five pieces, of vary­ing length and tenor, that com­prise A Pos­si­ble Life might have been pre­sented just as read­ily as a col­lec­tion of loosely linked sto­ries or novel­las. Each works more than ef­fec­tively in its own right, but I’m not en­tirely con­vinced the book amounts to more than the sum of its parts.

Each piece spans the life of a dif­fer­ent char­ac­ter, each drawn from a dif­fer­ent pe­riod. The ear­li­est be­gin in 1822, the lat­est in 2029, though the ar­range­ment is not chrono­log­i­cal. Faulks prefers to move flu­idly through time de­spite the con­ven­tional nar­ra­tive struc­ture of the pieces them­selves. Three are set in Eng­land and France, one in Italy and one in the US.

With no di­rect point of ref­er­ence to con­nect one piece with an­other, each is, to a de­gree, the­mat­i­cally con­cerned with strength and re­silience in the face of ad­ver­sity; with sur­viv­ing what life throws at you and mak­ing a fist of it no mat­ter what. There’s also a darker un­der­cur­rent run­ning through the book con­cerned with the point at which life might ul­ti­mately break you.

The open­ing piece de­liv­ers Faulks’s Fran­cophile read­ers to com­fort­ably fa­mil­iar ter­ri­tory. It charts the life of Geoffrey Tal­bot, a linguistics grad­u­ate and cricket en­thu­si­ast who se­cures a teach­ing po­si­tion at a British pri­vate school the year be­fore the out­break of World War II. His re­solve to ‘‘ do the right thing’’ sees him work­ing as an in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cer in France, blow­ing up trains and fall­ing in love with a French Re­sis­tance agent who will in­evitably be­tray him. Faulks does ro­mance and war well, and Tal­bot is some­thing of an amal­gam of Char­lotte Gray and Bird­song’s Stephen Wraysford.

If there’s a touch of the spir­ited Boy’s Own Ad­ven­ture about the set­ting-up of the story, the reg­is­ter shifts with Tal­bot’s in­tern­ment and con­scrip­tion to the hor­rors of the Nazi death camps. Faulks’s psy­cho­log­i­cal in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the dam­age in­flicted by war and the con­so­la­tions of hu­man kind­ness is more akin to his weight­ier ex­am­i­na­tion of men­tal ill­ness in En­gelby and Hu­man Traces.

Where a cold sort of British re­solve and aloof­ness cush­ioned Tal­bot from emo­tional en­gage­ment be­fore the war, his trauma dis­con­nects him from all but the most durable ves­tiges of a safe and or­dered world that seems be­yond sal­vage. His iso­lated de­tach­ment and es­sen­tial alone­ness is shared with the char­ac­ters whose lives shape the sto­ries that fol­low.

Billy Webb is a prod­uct of the In­dus­trial Rev­o­lu­tion, a Lon­don work­house boy who en­dures the hunger and iso­la­tion of in­sti­tu­tion­alised life be­fore find­ing love and drag­ging him­self up by his own boot­straps. Jeanne, ‘‘ the most ig­no­rant per­son in Li­mo­ges’’, is an il­lit­er­ate or­phan work­ing as a nurse­maid and house­keeper to a pe­tit­bour­geois fam­ily who finds her­self the butt of chil­dren’s jokes for fail­ing to make sense of the world. A sal­va­tion of sorts oc­curs late in life when she fi­nally un­der­stands the mean­ing of a para­ble from the Bi­ble.

Faulks ex­tends his psy­cho­log­i­cal in­ves­ti­ga­tions through Elena, a highly in­tel­li­gent, self­con­tained Ital­ian girl who grows into an ar­ro­gant and aloof re­searcher ex­plor­ing the neu­ro­science of the imag­i­na­tion. There’s some­thing of the para­ble it­self about this strangely sen­ti­men­tal tale. Set in the near fu­ture, Italy’s econ­omy has re­verted to that of the early 20th cen­tury and Elena’s re­treat to her own child­hood world and her cal­cu­lated re­jec­tion of her adopted brother, Bruno, has a faux sim­plic­ity about it that be­lies the so­phis­ti­ca­tion of Faulks’s ideas.

The shift­ing dy­namic be­tween Elena and Bruno, and the ul­ti­mately in­sep­a­ra­ble bond be­tween them, is grist for the mill for Faulks’s sto­ry­telling abil­i­ties, but the story also op­er­ates as an en­gag­ing med­i­ta­tion on the role of mem­ory and imag­i­na­tion in the cre­ation of a sense of self.

The fi­nal piece con­cerns Anya King, an enig­matic and ab­surdly tal­ented singer and folk mu­si­cian from Devil’s Lake, North Dakota, who is ‘‘ dis­cov­ered’’ by a group of like-minded and well-con­nected mu­sos liv­ing the life in a 1970s share house in New York state. Whether it’s the transat­lantic shift with its at­ten­dant shift in reg­is­ter or the sense that this story as­pires to stand on its own mer­its, it’s prob­a­bly the least com­fort­able fit in the col­lec­tion. That said, it’s a re­mark­able story of love and loss in its own right, not least for Faulks’s act of ven­tril­o­quism in cap­tur­ing the mood and lan­guage of the pe­riod.

There’s a pas­sage in this fi­nal story where Anya rejects the idea of the con­cept al­bum on the ba­sis that each song is a dif­fer­ent world. ‘‘ You try and force them to­gether, you di­min­ish each one.’’

The five pieces col­lected here are hardly di­min­ished, but I do hear the words of Anya’s lover and pro­ducer lament­ing over the headache of se­quenc­ing, and the dif­fi­culty of mak­ing an al­bum a co­her­ent emo­tional jour­ney for the lis­tener.

Se­bas­tian Faulks

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