Wednesday, 27 February 2013

A Possible Life, by Sebastian Faulks

A Possible Life is a quietly interesting and intriguing book, and one that's quite hard to pinpoint onto paper. It's created through five individual stories, showing five different lives, different times, different countries, different perspectives, and it's probably a couple of months since I read it now, which makes reviewing it even harder!

So, five stories, five people. First there is Geoffrey, 1938, caught up in the second world war. Then Billy, 1859, growing up in the workhouse, a place virtually beyond the modern western imagination to comprehend. Elena, 2029, a strange, withdrawn girl growing up in Italy; Jeanne, 1822, whose story I remember the least; and Anya, 1971, a Californian singer-songwriter headed for the stars.

I could draw a comparison to Sam Thompson’s Communion Town or David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, each of which are novels composed of different stories in a similar way to this one, but really that is the only similarity between them. Sebastian Faulks’ new book, for one, is subtler. Whilst reading it, I spent much of my time trying to identify what twists within each story linked them all together, which was a significant mistake on my part, for it is not the stories themselves that are linked, but rather their essence. The title is, after all, A Possible Life, and to me, I think that is what it's all about: possible lives.

In some cases the chapter is told from the point of view of the person named, in others it's another’s experience or memories of that person, and for the most part we are shown a sweeping view of each character’s life. As another reviewer has commented, each individual story is likely to speak to different readers differently. For me, I connected more strongly with Billy, Geoffrey and Anya than I did with Elena and Jeanne, though I imagine other readers may have a different response. What stands out are the themes of humanity that run through each character’s life: the search for love, connection, understanding. Each character finds - or fails to find - these things in a different way. Each life is a possibility: is it up to us what we make of it, or is it out of our control?

From an external vantage point, or before I had completed the book, I would have said the individual stories felt disparate and vaguely inconclusive, yet by the time I got to the end, somehow they had all coalesced in mind in a way that made the novel complete and whole. Strange and, as I said at the start, intriguing.

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