Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2012-10-22
- Reviewer: Staff
In this masterful book, Faulks links the stories of five disparate lives into a long meditation on the intersection of fate and free will. Five discrete novellas range from 1800s France to Italy in 2029, examining how choices, impulses, and luck (both good and bad) shape lives: into the first, Faulks packs virtually a whole novel; in 1938, Geoffrey Talbot, a undistinguished prep school teacher, confronts the reality of the Holocaust in occupied France by going undercover in a concentration camp. In the middle of the 19th century, in England, seven-year-old Billy Webb’s destitute parents ship him off to the workhouse, where in Dickensian style he grows up struggling through low-wage jobs; its blunt first-person narrator creates a vivid character in Billy. Fifteen years into the future, an accident reveals insights into “raised human consciousness,” but Italian scientist Elena Duranti is still stymied by love, lending this novella a melancholic tone. Jeanne, a once-orphaned servant “said to be the most ignorant person” in her village in 1820s rural France, watches her family unravel with a wiser eye than they suspect; the novella’s broad strokes and coy narration create a fablelike quality. The final novella, about Anya King, a singer in the Joni Mitchell mode, is narrated by her lover and collaborator, Jack, in America in the early 1970s. Stirring descriptions of the music business of that era and of Anya’s own music reveal the seductive talent that led Jack to junk his own life in favor of helping her craft her masterpiece. What Faulks (Birdsong) risks sound twee and clever, and not unlike what David Mitchell did in Cloud Atlas, but this book transcends pat tropes through the beauty and clarity of Faulks’s prose. Each world is drawn with precision, creating widely varied stories that are intensely absorbing, with language flowing and eddying to suit each one. Though there are subtle connections, characters’ lives never cross; they are alive in their own worlds. Faulks resists assembling his parts into a thumping moral; his book is both bigger and less ambitious than that, a contemplation of human existence on the individual level. Highly recommended. Agent: Gillon Aitken, Aitken Alexander Associates. (Dec.)
Connections across centuries
Sebastian Faulks is best known for rich historical novels like Charlotte Gray and Birdsong. In his new work, A Possible Life, history is used as a backdrop to explore what connects us, suggesting that there are certain commonalities of thought, feeling and experience despite differences of time and place. This beautifully written novel is actually five self-contained character studies moving from 19th-century France to 2027 Italy, with several stops in between.
A Possible Life begins with Geoffrey, a British schoolmaster who volunteers to go to France as part of a special unit during WWII. He is captured by the Nazis and sent to a death camp in Poland, where he is put to work assisting with the incineration of men, women and children. He is changed by this experience, even, he suggests, at a molecular level. Faulks then moves to 19th-century London and the tale of young Billy, whose parents bring him to the workhouse after they can no longer afford to feed him. Billy’s rise from poverty to landlord, from orphan to parent, demonstrates how profoundly the circumstances of an individual can change in the course of a lifetime.
The next shift is to the near future with Elena, an Italian neuroscientist researching the mysteries of consciousness. Elena grows up in a farm, the kind of young girl who enjoys playing alone in the woods with only her imagination to keep her company. When her father brings home a young boy that he plans to adopt, Elena’s privacy is shattered. She never really recovers from the experience but uses those emotions as the basis for much of her research as an adult. Faulks moves from higher consciousness to barely conscious in the story of the ill-used servant Jeanne. Though she can barely express a sense of self, her life is illuminated by the Bible stories she hears in church. The final and longest story follows the career of Anya King, a Joni Mitchell-like singer songwriter in the late ’60s/early ’70s, told from the point of view of a man who falls deeply in love with her.
Each of the five characters in A Possible Life is searching for a connection with others and for meaning in their lives. With each choice, there is an awareness of a life not led and a crisis survived, often leading to a renewal of the spirit. One could quibble over whether this is really a novel or a collection of stories, but that may be missing the point. For those of us who remember listening to music on albums, A Possible Life is most reminiscent of an LP—a gathering of distinct expressions that together make up a satisfying whole.