Described by the publisher as a novel, this latest offering by the highly-regarded Sebastian Faulks – the Financial Times says, ‘Faulks is beyond doubt a master,’ – is in fact a collection of five stories. Each story has its own title, but they are also labelled Parts I to V, signalling that they are supposed to form a coherent whole; that they are in some way linked.
A Possible Life reminded me a little of Edward P Jones’ two volumes of linked short stories, All Aunt Hagar’s Children and Lost In The City. The links between Jones’ stories are subtle and curious; a name might re-appear in a different context, or a location will feature again, but at a different time or with different people. The connections between the five stories in A Possible Life are even less obvious, and reflect Faulks’ fascination with what makes us human. Science, consciousness, artistic creativity, families, love and the Holocaust all feature. Only once the book is finished is it possible to reflect on the stories as a collection, and try and make sense of them.
Each story traverses the whole of its subject’s life, set in different times and places from 18th century France to mid-21st century Italy. The middle three stories struggled to live up to the emotional and heart-breaking narrative of the first – the stoicism and suffering of a man subject to the horrors of the Second World War – or the re-imagining of the love affair between Joni Mitchell and Graham Nash on which the fifth and final story is loosely based. The first story sets such a high standard, although it certainly has flaws, that the rest were always going to be hard-pressed to follow it. Its strength perhaps explains why I felt such disappointment at turning the page and realising that ‘Part II’ was a completely different story.
What is it that makes the middle three stories less satisfactory? Writing about the future, unless you’re a top notch science fiction writer, is always a challenge. The knowing nods to the present that make science fiction interesting – the novelty of someone reading printed newspapers instead of screens, or a reference back to the global financial crisis – have to be done extremely well, otherwise they seem a little obvious, a little contrived.
The Victorian workhouse boy who toils his way to a comfortable life, against the odds and with family challenges that test his integrity, seemed too much like a parable. And the 18th century French servant girl who leads a life of drudgery just didn’t have enough depth to satisfy me, despite Faulks showing us the families for whom she works, with all their pretensions and shortcomings.
I also had a problem with the way that for just a paragraph or two, in each story, Faulks shifts the point of view away from the protagonist. It is difficult to imagine this is unintentional but when, in fiction, the point of view changes temporarily to another character then shifts back again, it is as if the writer has given up on finding a way to show us what he wants through the eyes of his protagonist. There are lots of great books where the point of view jumps around all over the place – Nicola Barker’s The Behindlings, or The Believers, by Zoe Heller – but it is unusual to find examples of what Faulks has done in A Possible Life. Perhaps he’s trying to show how human consciousness flickers in and out of focus, how we can’t know everything? Perhaps, but the result is unconvincing, and doesn’t feel right.
Faulks’ decision to put what are, effectively, five novellas into one book makes them feel compressed and constrained, but the first and the last suffer most as a result; it feels as if there are longer, deeper versions waiting to be told; that important insights and events have been skipped over; that words have been sacrificed to make space for the other three stories.
If there is a common theme in A Possible Life, it is universal: life unfolds in many different ways, often we can’t control what happens, and love is difficult to find and to cope with. Isn’t that what most fiction is about? It could be argued that the middle story, set in the future, about a scientific breakthrough related to consciousness and the mind, is the ‘answer’ to the book’s question, but it doesn’t do enough to properly fill that role.
By packaging these stories together with the title A Possible Life, Faulks promises something more profound than two strong and three weaker stories linked by only the most tenuous of threads. Rather than judge each on its own merits I was always looking for something more, and disappointment was inevitable. The strength of the first and last stories goes someway towards redeeming the book but, in the end, Faulks does not keep his promise, and we are left with a collection that is not, really, much more than the sum of its parts.
Reviewed by C P Howe
A Possible Life
by Sebastian Faulks
Published by Hutchinson, September 2012