TOP 100 REVIEWERon 14 September 2012
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.