Book review: A Possible Life, Sebastian Faulks
HERE’S an oddity. Sebastian Faulks has been struck by a suspicion that none of us is quite as different or separate from each other as we believe.
To express this intuition in fiction, he has adopted an unusual form – a sequence of apparently disconnected novellas about different people in different times, which work around the same theme and at times are linked together in ways that can only be picked up on a second reading.
In the first, A Different Man, Geoffrey Talbot, a cricket-loving teacher, volunteers for the Special Operations Executive in the Second World War. Betrayed by his lover and captured in a farmhouse in south-west France, he is traumatised by being made to work in a German extermination camp. After the war, he returns to teaching but breaks down, living only the most restricted life. One night, aged 55, he finally decides he has had enough. “Let someone else live my life for me, Geoffrey thought… The next day he felt changed… some subtle rearrangement of particles had taken place within him; he felt with joy and resignation that he was not the same man.” It is a sudden and cryptic end to a poignant tale.
The next story, The Second Sister, is set in the 19th century and told in the first person. From old age, Billy describes how he overcame illiteracy to make a prosperous family life, marrying childhood sweetheart Alice. But when Alice was struck down by a brain injury, Billy made an alternative life with her sister Nancy. It seems people can be exchanged. “I don’t think you ever understand your life, not till it’s finished and probably not then either,” Billy concludes.
The third story is futuristic and a bit Houellebecqian. In an Italy impoverished by the Great Slump, Elena, a neuroscientist, makes a revolutionary discovery of just how the brain produces the illusion that there is a self. Yet even this knowledge does not change the human condition. Approaching 50, Elena says that “after a lifetime of scientific research she understands nothing at all”. Dozing, she is filled with memories that seem to come from other lives, indeed from the other stories in the book.
The final story, You Next Time, follows Fred, a rock musician in the Sixties, as he relates his affair with singer-songwriter Anya King. It is her special gift to be able to express other lives through her own – “that outreach of imagination, to feel your heart beat in someone else’s life”. But Anya leaves Fred and he has had to make the best of the rest of his life.
Aged 60 and “resigned to all the lives I wouldn’t now have time to lead”, Fred, too, admits life seems to be a matter of chance. “Yet I also knew that if any of those bits of luck had fallen out a different way and I had another life, it would in some way have been the same – my heart existing, as Anya put it, by a different name.”
Faulks has expressed the hope that reading the book will be like listening to a symphony in five movements, the whole thing adding up to more than the sum of its parts. If such melding doesn’t wholly come off, these stories are none the less delicate, persuasive expressions of one of the melancholies of ageing – the sorry realisation that your life has after all not been so distinctive as it felt at the time, a realisation perhaps best met by the hope that the very communality of life can yet be treasured. «
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Wednesday 19 June 2013
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