California Literary Review

Book Review: A Possible Life: A Novel in Five Parts by Sebastian Faulks

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January 7th, 2013 at 9:22 am

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Book jacket: A Possible Life: A Novel in Five Parts
A Possible Life: A Novel in Five Parts
by Sebastian Faulks
Henry Holt, 287 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★★☆


Brief Lives

During the famous “graveyard” scene in Hamlet, Act V, Scene 1, the melancholy Prince of Denmark muses to his friend, Horatio, that the “noble dust” of the decayed body of Alexander the Great might in time be fashioned into a plug to “stop a beer-barrel.”

To borrow a line from Shakespeare, “may not imagination trace” the dust of less exalted souls?

If we could follow the mortal remains or spiritual resonance of a sport-loving soldier from the Second World War, an impoverished London lad from the time of Charles Dickens, a French servant woman of the Napoleonic era or a scientific researcher from a decade or two in the future, where might these trails lead?

Sebastian Faulks, in his new novel A Possible Life, traces the lives of five disparate characters, probing the “subtle rearrangement of particles” that makes each of them a flesh and blood individual. Along the way, bits and pieces of their separate lives are left behind to reappear in the life stories of the others. A farmhouse near Limoges, France, where the betrayal and capture of Geoffrey Talbot, the Second World War commando, takes place, was earlier the site of a dramatic encounter between Jeanne, the French servant woman, and a charismatic monk, Brother Bernard. But do these elements or echoes of human beings of the past reconfigure to influence the lives of those now living – or in the future? Or is life just a mass of unconnected, unrelated atoms and molecules, which will be recycled into something or somebody else?

That question is central to Faulks’ novel.

Sebastian Faulks, one of the literary lions of contemporary Britain, has a trio of well-regarded historical novels to his credit, among other works. Recently, he presented a highly entertaining BBC miniseries on the rise of the British novel, Faulks on Fiction.

Faulks is a perceptive writer and daring one too. He has taken on some profoundly important issues in this novel, an amazingly compact volume of 287 pages. Questions relating to the core identity of human beings are raised. And the problematic role of people as agents of their own destiny, with free will and social responsibility, is ever present on these pages. And none of these weighty issues defuses the dramatic intensity of the five stories.

Questions, however, demand answers. Before we can determine if Faulks delivers any, there is a significant quandary related to the structure of this book. Is A Possible Life “a novel in five parts” as its subtitle proclaims? Might this alternatively be a loosely-connected group of tales, a short-fiction anthology in disguise? If so, then the central issue, mentioned above, dealing with the nature of human life, is not addressed and Faulks has merely delivered an impressive clutch of highly readable stories.

Faulks is too gifted a writer to let slip an opportunity to grapple with literary themes of universal relevance. A Possible Life does not short-change its readers.

The farmhouse in Limoges, France, provides a key. In both the World War II episode, where Geoffrey is betrayed to the Nazis, and the encounter between Jeanne and Brother Bernard, Faulks emphasizes the awareness of both protagonists that a turning point in their lives is about to occur. Both Geoffrey and Jeanne comprehend that the farmhouse is more than just a structure, with four walls and a roof. The words that Faulks uses to relate these two scenes are almost exactly same. In the case of Jeanne, Faulks writes:

She felt that her life was about to take a decisive turn. Why should it be here of all places, she wondered – this old farm that had seen the generations come and go and would see her in the grave as well? But then again, why not? What are places for – but to keep watch silently?

The farmhouse manifests a kind of living presence, so much that when Geoffrey returns after the end of the war, he suffers an emotional collapse when no one living at the farm remembers him or the young woman he had travelled to meet there on the fatal evening of his betrayal. Similarly, while being incarcerated in a Nazi death camp, he dreams of a cricket field back in England. Later, during the middle decades of the twenty-first century, a renowned Italian scientist, Elena Duranti, is haunted by “memories of places she has never been,” including Geoffrey’s cricket field.

The places that serve as the settings for the stories in A Possible Life exert an almost magnetic force field. These sites grip the characters regardless of how hard they try to escape. In the fifth story, largely set in the United States during the “sex and rock and roll” 1970′s, the reader is lulled into thinking that the foot-loose rock musicians have been able to escape the chain-link fence of fate. Faulks has a crafty – almost cruel – surprise ending in store to disabuse them of that notion.

After calling it quits, Jack Wyatt, the aging rocker who has devoted himself to Anya, the folk-singing diva of this final story, visits a posh London condo development. A nice place to retire, one would think. The rehabbed structure, however, had been the grim Victorian workhouse where Billy Webb, the young protagonist of the second of Faulks’ tales, had been sent by his impoverished parents. Jack knows nothing of Billy but he is aware of the building’s brutal past. He declares:

I didn’t much go for it. I didn’t want to be swallowed up by so much history, by the failed existences of others. At my age, I’d begun to pity the struggles of the young and I was resigned to all the lives I wouldn’t now have time to lead.

But it is not merely history or geography that shape and constrain the lives of Faulks’ protagonists. Human physiology, the very cells that make up our bodies, grip the characters in these stories and determine the course of their lives.

In the central story of Faulks’ “possible life,” a young Italian scientist, Elena, is confronted by the theory that “biology is destiny.” Elena lives in 2029 in a Europe impoverished by the bank collapse of the early twenty-first century. In this threadbare world, medical care is at a premium. Elena’s mother dies, aged 53, of a congenital heart weakness. Elena must survive – alone – with only the cold, clinical details of science to sustain her. When Elena makes a brilliant discovery unlocking the neurological link between the base-level root of human consciousness and the higher self-awareness that propelled human evolution, she is accused of destroying the idea of the human soul.

Elena’s story is perhaps the best of the five stories. Faulks constructs a thoroughly believable social milieu for a dismal twenty-first century. This future no longer beckons with the fraudulent mystique of limitless progress. The scientific theories and medical technology that underpin Elena’s career are entirely credible too. She uses a device called a SADS (synaptic activity dual spectroscopy) scanner to advance her research. But all Elena proves by the end of her story is that human beings are “merely matter that coheres for a millisecond falls apart and is infinitely reused.”

Is this what Faulks believes? Does he live, as Elena does, bereft of happiness and mystified that the cells that make-up her body “are in truth as flexible as time itself?”

The beliefs, ideas, doubts and fears of an author are not – usually – the same as those of his protagonists. Yet, as was noted earlier, an author must answer the questions he or she raises. Faulks does not dodge the issue of whether we humans are truly individuals or recyclable bundles of atoms and molecules.

His answer is as plain as the undeniable character of each of his protagonists. Each breaks the bounds of imprisonment, poverty, frustration and disbelief. Whether it is Geoffrey Talbot escaping from a Nazi death camp, Billy Webb clawing his way up from the squalor of Victorian London or Elena Duranti struggling with the consequences of her own intellectual brilliance, Faulks’ characters are not shackled by biological or historical determinism.

Perhaps, the individual heroics of Faulks’ protagonists are ultimately subsumed in the greater, unified life of humanity as a whole. That might well be what Faulks is referring to with the title of his book. If so, this “possible life” is a life worth living.

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