A Possible Life is described as “a novel in five parts”. To my mind this comes close to being a contravention of the Trades Description Act.
A Possible Life
By Sebastian Faulks
Hutchinson, 294pp, £18.99
The five parts are distinct long-short stories, or even novellas, but there is too little correspondence between them to make a novel. There is, arguably, a common theme: the difficulties of life, which is after all one of the subjects of many novels, and indeed short stories.
But the settings are very different and have almost nothing in common. One story is set in the 18th and early 19th century France, another in Victorian London, one in mid-20th century England, France and Poland, another in late 20th century USA and England, and one in mid 21st century Italy. One character appears in both the first and last stories in the book, but he is a minor and not very significant one. The workhouse of the Victorian story re-appears as a gentrified up-market set of apartments in the late 20th century story. This is insufficient to justify calling the book a novel. It is less a novel than Malcolm Lowry’s similar collection of long-short stories, Hear Us, O Lord, From Heaven Thy Dwelling-Place or Alan Spence’s marvellous Its Colours They Were Fine, for both these books have a unity of theme absent from this one.
Admittedly, on the back cover, the publishers offer a three-sentence justification for presenting the book as a novel: “Every atom links us. Every feeling binds us. Every thought connects us.” Sadly, my crude response to this specious philosophising is “So what?”
Enough complaining. Faulks has been among the most fluent and popular of English novelists since the publication of Birdsong. He never forgets the importance of narrative, and couples this with an interest in science, unusual for literary novelists, and most evident in his novel Human Traces. There are echoes of that book in the third story in this collection, “Everything Can be Explained”, where Elena, a young Italian scientist in the mid-21st century, identifies “the defining quality of human consciousness” as being “not an entity but a connection… an open loop that ran between Glockner’s Isthmus and the site of episodic memory.” This is an interesting speculation – at least, I suppose that in the present state of knowledge, it is no more than that. Yet the charm of this story rests less in the intellectual adventure, than in the relations between Elena and Bruno, the damaged boy from a Balkan orphanage who becomes her foster-brother, and perhaps more than that.
The first story, “A Different Man”, tells of a damaged life. Geoffrey Talbot, cricketer, rugby-player and prep school master, is one of war’s victims. Sent to France to liaise with the Resistance, he is betrayed and dispatched east to work as a slave-labourer in the death-camps. He survives but is never whole again, drifting through life expecting nothing from it. Despite some historical errors and one or two less than plausible episodes, this is a moving and convincing story, recounted in flat matter-of-fact style.
“The Second Sister” , written in a convincing first person, tells of a Victorian workhouse boy who makes good. It is well done and continuously interesting, though strangely lacking in drama. One thing happens and then another, but even when the narrator’s wife suffers a mental or nervous breakdown which sees her consigned to an asylum, the telling is perfunctory.
“A Door into Heaven” is the story of a servant-girl, Jeanne, “said to be the most ignorant person in the Limousin village where she had lived most of her life”. “She talks continually to God as she goes about her work. “This was not prayer so much as putting her thoughts into words, but she had a clear picture in her mind who her listener was. He was the wooden figure on the cross in the village church”. Jeanne’s existence is hard, her experience limited, but Faulks brings her very sympathetically before us. Indeed she is the most persuasive character in the book, and this story is tender and moving. It is difficult to present the inarticulate; Faulks brings it off.
The last story, “You Next Time” is another told in the first person. The narrator is a musician, English by birth and upbringing, now living in the USA. He becomes the manager of a gifted singer, whose career he promotes and with whom he falls in love while still loving his wife. Yet again, the conflict is never dramatic. The story of the singer’s career suggests that Faulks has researched the music world and understands it – though her supposedly moving lyrics seem pretty flat to me – but the relationship between the narrator and Anya never convinces. “I saw how far we’d penetrated one another’s lives. I didn’t know what to say. We just kept staring. In her eyes there was anger, love, pride and desperation. God knows what she saw in mine.” God knows how he could see all that in hers is a natural response.
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