A Possible Life by Sebastian Faulks (Hutchinson - September, 2012)
Select an era, any era. Give me a country, any country. A person, any person, in time. Let’s visit them all, and I’ll show you how they are connected. Were Sebastian Faulks a travelling literary magician touting his trade at a country fair, that might be how he would hawk his wares. In A Possible Life, he restricts himself to five eras, five countries, and five people, but the result is no less worthy of boast: in a journey through time and through the meaning of self and identity, Faulks offers a teasing and thought-provoking exploration of what it is to be human.
In his short piece to camera to publicise the book, Faulks explains that his theme is whether individuals are ever really satisfactorily distinguished from each other or if, in fact, we are all part of the same joined-up life. In A Possible Life, which Faulks compares to an album, he takes five separate – or are they? – individuals and shows us how their lives might be connected to each other, or indeed how they might form part of one possible life.
There is the linguist who loses himself in the Second World War then re-finds himself but not his former lover, the boy who grows up in a Dickensian workhouse before bedding down with two sisters, the futuristic wild girl turned scientist who discovers herself in a lost love and the brain’s secret to selfhood, a nurse-maid in a Napoleonic-era service who finds holy salvation a laundry-room, the one-time band-member in doped-up LA whose greatest success escapes him. Solider, slum landlord, scientist, nurse and music manager. Very different classes of people at very different times take a fifth of the novel each, ostensibly in their separate sections. But little by little, overlaps and foreshadowings and twists of each others’ lives begin to be revealed. Orphanages, loves lost in farmhouses, incestuous relationships, affairs, spies, small cracked Madonnas – objects and life circumstances re-form in fresh patterns. This is the playful Faulks, showing us what links the writer’s brain can piece together, first one way, then the next, with each twist of the kaleidoscope. He’s not showing off – or, if he is, it’s allowed, because we are in on the game – but rather questioning how different all these people actually are.
The novel does not start out with a feeling of difference. It feels very similar, in fact, to Birdsong, as though the protagonist from that has wandered into his next war, clutching his character notes of himself as references, complete with the quest to find a lost love and the annoying Faulksian tendency to jump timeframes just when a story is getting interesting. There is a lot of cricket and stiff upper lip and, despite the hours spent in charnel houses and asylums, little convincing interiority explaining why this person is passively drifting through life from England to France and back again.
However, by the end of the novel, the characters are swimming in rich interiority, and Faulks’ skill is plain. We have now not a soldier, but a young talented female singer, wafting from country to country in search of answers. Faulks loads his prose with purpose – there is ‘Always another train. Nothing is forever…Nothing is lost’, and we hear of the album title ‘A possible life’ with the lyrics ‘Another life would be the same/ My heart existing by another name.’ Here, as well as being at his most lyrical, he is at his most teasing. Faulks seems to be daring us to guess which of the five sections of the book most closely relate to him. As third person moves to first for the final chapter, the musician ‘changed from she to I in the dreamscape’; there is a question about which ‘songs’ in the ‘album’ are personal; and Faulks lets the reader in to the problems of sequencing the ‘tracks.’ The cricket and war stories may have come first in the book, as they did in Faulks’ own background, but by the end of it there is an artist.
A Possible Life is not all geared at time wizardry and clever twists of the writer’s Rubik’s cube. Faulks is trying to unearth the serious truths that connect or disconnect us as humans. He carefully chooses episodes from the furnaces and gas showers of the Holocaust to remind us how shocking it is when the human connection is denied. But he also warns us not to hold ourselves blameless. Each of his five characters suffers some form of debasement or cruelty, whether as the perpetrator or the victim. Thankfully, each also experiences a resurgence, salvation and hope to reincarnate them into a fresh possible existence. There might be death, love, separation and betrayal but with it comes tolerance, self-awareness, achievement and peace, the ability to ‘lose [one’s] pain, [one’s] sense of self, in that tireless commotion’ of the crowd.
Faulks’ ninth novel is a slow-burn, but like an album where you have to listen to the final track before you take a view, you must read to the end to get the full sense of what Faulks has done with this piece of work. Parts of it are clunky and over-elaborate, such as the rather contrived scientific discoveries the third character makes about the hidden bit of the brain where ‘self’ is, and the wearying faux-illiterate voice of the pauper with his ‘we was’ this, and his ‘there was’ those. However, even if elements of the earlier chapters are laboured, they are worth it to reach the end of the novel to see the ‘enormous stretch’ of what Faulks, as with his musician protagonist, has tried to do – create the ‘outreach of imagination’ whereby you may, too, ‘feel your heart beat in someone else’s life.’