A Possible Life is not a novel and it is misleading of Faulks and his publishers to present it as one. It’s a collection of long short stories, two of which are almost novella length. No discernible theme links the stories, which are set in the nineteenth, twentieth and twenty-first centuries and out of chronological order.
A few incidents or objects recur – a chained dog threatens a character in two stories, a battered statue of the Madonna turns up in another two. In a further two otherwise completely different stories, two characters talk about their feelings of oneness. Orphanages, madness and heart disease crop up here and there. A building figures twice, as does a minor character. These are clever and subtle touches but not unifying enough to justify calling the book a novel, as the back cover blurb does.
Sebastian Faulks is a patchy writer, in my opinion. His Anglo-French trilogy, The Girl at the Lion d’Or, Birdsong and Charlotte Gray – was superb. On Green Dolphin Street was tepid, Heart Traces was over-long and dull, and his attempt at a James Bond book, Devil May Care, was a disaster. So it’s not surprising that the quality of the five stories in A Possible Life varies markedly.
The first piece, ‘A Different Man’, is the second longest and the best. It begins in 1938 with Geoffrey Talbot leaving Oxford with a mediocre degree and a cricket blue. He becomes a schoolteacher, joins the army, serves as an intelligence agent in France, endures hell in a concentration camp, goes mad … A lot happens, most of it very interesting and very sad. With a little expansion it would make an excellent novella.
‘The Second Sister’, set in the second half of the nineteenth century, follows. It’s very strong, tracing the career of Billy Webb, who rises from the workhouse to become a ruthless, prosperous landlord. Again, along the way, the story takes intriguing twists and turns. Its theme is crisply summed up in Billy’s last statement when he details what his actions have done for his dependants:
‘And that’s what I’ve done for them, that’s my gift to them, and to all their children ever after so don’t talk to me about being hard.’
The next two stories, one set in 2029 and the other in 1822, are much weaker. The futuristic story presents an unconvincing picture of the world not so far ahead, with a good deal of philosophy and science that glazed my eyes. The next piece, ‘A Door into Heaven’, begins, ‘Jeanne was said to be the most ignorant person in the village of Limousin where she had lived most of her life’. Why anyone would want to read about this deluded, priest- and saints-ridden woman and her dreary provincial milieu defeats me.
Faulks is in more interesting territory with ‘You Next Time’, a long first-person account in which Jack, English guitarist and songwriter, narrates his passionate relationship with Anya King from North Dakota, a musician and singer in the Joni Mitchell mould.
Jack is convincing as an insider of the music business and its highs and lows and Anya comes across as scary, talented and troubled. Jack’s agonising over his divided heart – he cares deeply for both Anya and Lowri, the lover he deserted – will ring true to anyone who has been there.
Faulks appears to know about music, but then, anyone who can write confidently about the effect of a change from a major to a minor key and the use of a diminished seventh can convince me. Again, this piece would work well as a stand-alone novella. There is only one problem – Faulks reproduces the words of a number of Anya’s songs. They are hopelessly banal, the kinds of things Joni would decide were out-takes.
Sebastian Faulks A Possible Life, Hutchinson, 2012, PB, 304pp, $32.95
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