“A Possible Life” by Sebastian Faulks

I don’t think you ever understand your life – not till it’s finished and probably not then either. The more I live the less I seem to understand.

In A Possible Life, Sebastian Faulks tells five short, seemingly separate stories, plucked from different times, different countries, but with shared DNA. Each works as an independent tale, ranging from the horrors of the Second World War; a Victorian workhouse; a futuristic Italy; Napoleonic France; and 1960s California, and, as such, there is something to be said for the claim of some reviewers that this may not form a “novel” at all. That breadth, though, is surely the point of the structure –because in this ambitious book, Faulks isn’t just telling a single character’s story. He is distilling shared human experience into one expanded narrative, and very deliberately offering these five lives up as an examination of what we all have in common, not just what makes us unique.

I studied Birdsong when I was in my final year at school, and fell in love with it completely. It is, as I’m sure everyone knows by now, a story of two parts – a doomed pre-war love affair, which ultimately gives way to the horrors of the battlefield. One of that novel’s qualities is the mastery with which Faulks binds those two worlds together – images of Parisian waterways merge into trenches, and phrases echo one another across the years, offering tragic, clinging reminders of the proximity of life and death. Faulk’s has a way of concertinaing time, finding the epic rhythms which run through his characters’ lives, binding them to their forebears and descendants. It is not so much a democratization of experience as an insistence that what we think of as being our unique moments in fact ripple through time. It’s both an intellectual and tangible phenomenon – objects have tears in them, to quote Virgil, and Faulks uncovers this with rare skill.

A Possible Life exhibits that to maximum effect.  None of the stories are linked overtly, but the ripples are undoubtedly there. A chipped statue of the Madonna owned by one character finds itself in the hands of another, centuries later. The trauma of living through a war and bearing physical or mental scars is experienced keenly by three of the characters. A fleeting glimpse of a cricket match makes its way from the first story into the third. These people are explicitly bound by their things, their religion, their common humanity – and very literally, but the atoms from which they are made. At the end of the opening story, the main character experiences some subtle rearrangement of particles within himself. In another, as a character contemplates the death of her mother, she considers that the atoms that had made her mother had existed since the start of time. The sections of the novel aren’t just linked by themes and things, but by the matter which literally constitutes each character.

In the third story, a gifted scientist uncovers the mundane secret of human consciousness. It is the question which pervades each of these stories – how we cope with the weight of memory when we witness atrocities; whether our lives have a narrative we ought to be able to understand; the cost of creating a work of art so intimate that it speaks to the collective consciousness – essentially, how to understand the human condition. These are vast, existential ideas, but they aren’t overbearing. Instead the questions are woven lightly throughout narratives which otherwise deal with war, love, loss, art and loneliness; they flicker into focus occasionally, letting you know how connected we all are, even in isolation, but each section is otherwise allowed to have an arch of its own.

The only criticism I could offer is that, for me, the first story was so powerful that it rather overshadowed the rest of the novel. That perhaps betrays my own tastes rather than being an objective reflection on the success of the novel’s structure, but the poignancy of the opening story was only really recaptured by the beautiful closing lines. Notwithstanding that slight reservation, this is ambitious, protean, and thoroughly engaging. Faulks is the consummate master when it comes to revealing those minute, repeated details which pepper our lives, and as he has demonstrated so many times before, he can inhabit any number of characters completely believably (including, much to my delight, James Bond and Bertie Wooster). This is a very special, brave book.

“My time has come to disperse,” says my father. “We are made of fragments and they must go back. They have finished with this man.”

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