Times when life can make or break you
A Possible Life
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.