on 12 November 2012
`A Possible Life' is subtitled a `Novel in Five Parts'. These parts are, in fact, five apparently separate short stories about individual characters in different times and locations. They include a mild school teacher who finds himself in a Nazi concentration camp, a pop musician living a hedonistic life in 1970s USA, a scientist in Italy in the near future, a former workhouse inmate in the nineteenth century and a simple French woman living as a servant during the Napoleonic Wars.
This is a diverse range of settings, but Faulks' skills as a writer meant I became absorbed into these diverse lives of both male and female characters. There's no doubt that Faulks is attempting something profound - like his Italian scientist who is studying the brain to determine the essence of what makes us human - he is attempting to define a commonality between all human experience.
Some buildings appear in more than one story - a French farmhouse and a Victorian workhouse - but the characters themselves feel a connection to other times and places and lives. They all face choices between one thing and another, the `possible life' of the title. At some points I almost felt that Faulks was suggesting some kind of reincarnation when his characters catch glimpses into other existences and times.
But I'm not sure that the author might be going a step too far in his linking of stories and lives across time and space. At times he seems to be leading the reader by the hand to show us the connections. After all, if you're a regular reader of short stories, you'll know that the best of these writers can achieve this without telling us that they are. It is an enjoyable, thought-provoking book but I don't know that it is really more than a sum of its parts.
on 12 December 2012
Having purchased this book as a book rather than on my kindle, so that I could pass it on to friends, etc. It was so disappointing that I would not waste their time.
Having been a great fan of Sebastian Faulks over many years and read everything, I was stunned he would attempt such drivel. Five short stories, supposedly sending the reader a life message but none of them good or certainly not even able to record their content a week after I have finished it. Charlote Grey was good. Human Traces excellent. Having said those two, nothing has come anywhere near to Birdsong. His James Bond novel was poor, so what has gone wrong with this once great writer. Better to have writers block than turn out this stuff. Sorry but other friends who bought, also feel the same as me. A. Fitzpatrick, Solihull.
"A Possible Life" is a collection of five separate novellas with only the occasional small connection between them. They are written in five time periods, although the dates given as chapter/story titles (1938, 1859, 2029, 1822 and 1971) are just place-holders for periods of time. If there is a central theme to the stories it is that life experience is more about the complexities of human relationships (or the lack thereof) than the experiencing of events. The book's/stories' perspectives seemed to me to be distinctly English, despite the setting of three of the accounts in Italy, France and the U.S. This is particularly important when the stories focus on relationships between children and parents, I think.
I found some of these tales moving at times: a man lives through the horror of a Nazi concentration camp in the service of the killers and returns to live out the rest of his years burdened with the immensity of that experience; another man is sent away as a child to a London work house by his parents but never repudiates his obligations to that family as an adult; a woman scientist participates in scientific investigation that proves that humans have no real souls; a peasant woman lives a life of unquestioning service to a loathsome bourgeois family after a profound religious awakening; and a musician becomes the enabler for a self-absorbed singer of prodigious talent at a considerable emotional cost. But ultimately, their impact and interest are uneven overall. For the most part, these are not characters that you like very much--and you don't get the impression that the author really wants your love as perhaps your respect for them. These are people thrust into situations and relationships that are painful or tedious or bewildering. They all survive in one fashion or another, and sometimes their survival is a real triumph, but mostly it's just basic survival with a modest sense of satisfaction in that achievement.
While I think there is some good story-telling in these five mostly narratives, what I would have liked to see with greater generosity from the author, was warmth and even some joy in the characters. As it is, they have been given rather meager rations of both by him, which makes the book less than it could have been (in my opinion).
on 10 March 2014
Much of the criticism of Faulks’s most recent offering is founded on the observation that it is a collection of short stories rather than a coherent novel. I disagree. The five stories here accrete like the five human senses uniting in the novel’s fictitious ‘Glockner’s Isthmus’ to create a compelling commentary on human consciousness, guilt, bravery, weakness and brilliance. This Gestaltist approach is technically challenging but ultimately rewarding in offering an insight into the human condition that is far reaching.
The author cleverly creates coherence between the stories by cross referencing places objects and characters. In so doing ‘A possible Life’ stands as a unique novel which contrasts the permanence of places and objects with the transience of human existence and in particular the fragile nature of a single human life,
Faulks investigates some profound notions here: the nature of human consciousness, immortality, and the poetic versus the prosaic. However the narrative excels at portraying the lives of different human beings in different places at different times and finding commonality- the defining features of what makes us self aware beings.
Thus successive protagonists in time and space are faced with difficult choices, lives that might have been, regrets, and guilt. We are repeatedly reminded of humanity’s brilliance, creativity, resilience and courage but also its selfishness, lack of commitment and ability to betray and hurt those we love.
As one character observes: ‘accepting that we are no more than recycled matter does not take away the aching of the heart’. Such is the price of sentience and awareness of our own mortality.
on 26 August 2013
I have long been a fan of Sebastian Faulks - I think that Birdsong is one of the best contemporary novels I have ever read - and I have really enjoyed most of his other books, particularly Human Traces and On Green Dolphin Street.
A Possible Life was, naturally, well written and is a profound attempt to examine shared humanity by way of five very different short stories. As short stories, a couple of them work very well indeed, but the book does not cohere and left me feeling very dissatisfied at the end. Perhaps read it as short stories with breaks between each of them? Not a good introduction to Faulks and not to be treated as a novel.
These five short stories range in time and place, from 19th century France and England, to '60s America, and to an Italy set in the future. Each of them have the potential for five short novels, but in a dazzling display of skill and a masterly control of his material, Faulks condenses each narrative into something essential, something which, though pared down, is full of life.
Much has been made of the apparent connections between the stories - its been misleadingly called a novel because of these - but I did not find this aspect of the collection either obvious or helpful. Put any five short stories by the same author between covers and you will find connections of one kind or another if you look for them. Worrying about this is a distraction from their very real quality.
In this collection Faulks displays his gift for character and his seemingly effortless ability to evoke a specific time and place. He is at home describing a foul prison camp as he is a public school; he can summon life in a 19th French village as he can the hippy life of the pop music scene in '60s America. He creates real, varied, credible, exceptional characters: he doesn't just describe them and set them moving and speaking, he takes you into their heart and soul, he traces the significant events that change them, he demonstrates with compassion and sensitivity what lies at the heart of his characters. If there is an overriding theme in this collection, it is about the nature of identity, about the core of the self, about how love, its heights and disappointments, can shock one into a sense of one's true self.
His narrative skill and grasp of historical reality is not in doubt; at the heart of all good literature is character and in this he excels.
I've read many of Faulks's novels over the years. 'Birdsong' is the one he'll best be remembered for, of course; but some passages in 'A Possible Life' compare well with it. I think it's one of his best books.
Sebastian Faulks' latest book: 'A Possible Life', although described as a novel by the publishers, is actually five short stories moving from World War II, to a Victorian workhouse, forward in time to Italy in 2029, back to nineteenth century France and finally to California in the early 1970s.
In the first story 'A Different Man' we meet Geoffrey Talbot, a young half-French schoolmaster, working in prep school, who volunteers to go to France as part of a special unit during WWII. Before Geoffrey knows it, he has been captured by the Nazis and instead of being sent to a prisoner of war camp, he is sent to a death camp in Poland where he is given the absolute nightmare of a job involving the incineration of the bodies of Jewish men, women and children. Geoffrey copes by imagining himself playing cricket for his local club and stepping out to bat in front of scores of spectators watching from their deckchairs in the July sunshine; however when things become particularly harrowing and Geoffrey reaches the stage where he feels he would rather die than go on, he decides to make plans to escape...
In the second story 'The Second Sister' we are introduced to Billy, a young boy who is sent to the workhouse when his parents can no longer feed him. The story is narrated by Billy as he shares with the reader the story of his rise from beggardom to becoming a slum landlord. In this section the writing moves from the eloquent language of the prep school master in the first story, to the ungrammatical and colloquial language of a Victorian London urchin, which brings a totally different feel to the book.
In the third story we move to the future in 'Everything Can Be Explained', where we meet Elena, a neuroscientist who discovers the part of the brain that explains the mystery of higher levels of consciousness; however, will she discover that science cannot explain absolutely everything? The fourth story 'A Door into Heaven' is the poignant story of Jeanne, an exploited servant in nineteenth century France, who barely has a sense of self, let alone a higher level of consciousness, who nevertheless manages to find her door into heaven. The fifth and longest story is 'You Next Time' which follows the story of Anya King, a young and talented singer songwriter in the late sixties/early seventies as she moves from relative obscurity to fame, with a little help from alcohol, tranquillisers and from the man who falls deeply in love with her, her manager, Freddie.
Sebastian Faulks is a versatile writer who has written some wonderful novels and the quality of writing in 'A Possible Life' is, as expected, excellent. His descriptions of life in the death camp in the first story were horrifically good; I cannot get Geoffrey's experiences out of my mind and I am still thinking about it now, even though I have started reading another book. In each of the stories in 'A Possible Life' we see the characters searching for a connection with others and for a meaning to their lives and, as we read on, we might begin to question what real control do we have over our own destinies. However, is there a satisfying conclusion to the questions raised and do these stories hang together as a novel? For me, I found this book actually worked better when considered as a collection of five very loosely linked short stories/novellas or, as Faulks describes it himself, as a five part symphony examining the subtleties of human interaction. Although very skilfully composed, I feel that as a novel, this was not a wholly satisfying read - but as a collection of stories, I found much to admire and enjoy in the author's excellent writing.
on 14 February 2013
Just to say that the publishers ought to be prosecuted under the 'Trades Descriptions Act'. By no stretch of the imagination other than that both genres use words (!) can this be called a novel, in the conventional sense of the word. No matter how many pseudo-intellectuals claim connections between these 5 discrete stories, such connections simply don't exist... unless you're the kind of clever clogs who opines that a collection of bricks or a dirty, unmade bed a la the Turner prize for 'art' is saying something meaningful. Sadly, Faulkes has never recaptured the brilliance of 'Birdsong' or 'Human Traces'...Engleby, for instance, was drearily dreadful, I'm afraid.
on 15 April 2013
A very disappointing read !! The five strands (chapters are like short stories). There appears to be no link except for one paragraph that appears in both section 3 and 5. It describes a house in France. There is a 200 hundred year time gap however between the events/storyline.
The last chapter could have been sufficient to read !! Ikept expecting something to happen to link the strands together but nothing did.
Not like all the rest of his books which I have had the pleasure to read.
on 7 February 2013
Despite being rather disappointed with the last book I read from Sebastian Faulks I would still happily describe myself as a fan. Birdsong is one of my favourite books, although Engleby shows a greater writing skill. So when I was contacted about reviewing A Possible Life I was very eager. A small part of me worried that it would be in a similar vein to A Week in December, but you can't expect to love every book by an author so I tried to approach A Possible Life without any reference to Faulks' back-catalogue.
There was something strange about this novel in that it wasn't really one. It was actually a collection of short stories. It was advertised as being a novel made up of stories with a link. Well there maybe was a link, if you insisted on finding it, but only because of something which featured in the last story, it wasn't a link you would see if you weren't looking for it, and I'm not really happy with calling it a list.
In some ways I think A Possible Life might be a good place to start with Faulks. It's almost like a showcase. Different styles of writing, different themes. I think everyone is bound to enjoy one of the stories, however it might be a fight to get to the story you like.
For me the best stories were the first and the last.
The first had certain echoes of Birdsong, not just because it was a story of war but also because it had a certain level of insight to that experience. My problem with this story however was that it felt like it was stripped down. All the stories ran over a period of decades, which was good in a way because it showed the progress of a character, but also meant you didn't feel you were getting enough detail.
The last story was the story of a gifted music artist. It's the story which has stuck with me the most. Faulks' descriptions of Anya's music make me want to hear her sing- but seeing as she isn't real I can't do that! There was also an almost beautiful fragility to Anya which made me really care about her- or maybe that's just what the narrator felt for her. Even if it is the second then it shows that Faulks' first person narrative is realistic and evocative. I could have read a whole book about Anya, and it may have been able to make into a whole book, but only if it was either told by Anya herself, or without using the first person narrative, either of which I feel would have taken something away from the story.
Thinking about it all of the stories did have an element I liked, but (except for the possible exception of the last story) those moments seemed to be over all too quickly and were surrounded by moments which I didn't care so much about.
I'm not really sure how I want to rate this book. The stand out parts are close to 5 stars, but other bits only really deserve 3. I've put 3 stars because amazon demands it, but my opinion fluctuates.