It is unclear at first why this book of 5 disparate stories, set in different times on different continents with varying main characters, has been described as a novel. 'There does not appear to be any communal connection, as in, say Cloud Atlas. Only at the end will all the parts dovetail in surprising ways. The main characters do share certain qualities -- isolation, societal outsiders, content in their solitude. They are not psychopathically xenophobic, and will react to others. But they all seem to carry with themselves a self-sufficiency in which they live their lives. They have the sense they've experienced "this" before, encountered other characters before (Where or When?).
Throughout Faulks writes gorgeous prose, creating evocative images of familiar landscapes that seem even more vibrant in his hands. The scenes in the Nazi work camp, for instance, are more brutal than previously encountered; the orphanages more realistically produced. The reader can almost smell the outer landscape and feel its heat. He is an amazing writer with an original style. Even the placement of the stories, the order in which they are arranged, is intriguing. They are not chronological, but there is a certain logic. As with Kieslowski's Blue, White and Red movies, or even with his Decalogue, there is a sense in the connections of these stories that can only be fully recognized after completion.
on September 24, 2012
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 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.
In A Possible Life: A Novel in Five Parts Sebastian Faulks gives us five separate stories each with a distinct flavor and each a complete whole. The stories are set in different places in Europe and different times with different characters. I'll admit that I may have been a bit distracted while reading stories 2-5 as I kept trying to find connections between the characters and stories. While each story stands on its own, I kept trying to imagine where and how the stories would connect. Unfortunately, I this attempt to pinpoint the connections detracted from enjoying the novel as a whole.
Of the five stories, the first two were my particular favorites. The first tells the story of Geoffrey in 1939, a young man in England who enters the Diplomatic Service before the start of World War II. A linguist by training and an introvert by nature, Geoffrey finds himself working with an old rival to strengthen the French Resistance and eventually lands in a POW. Others found Geoffrey off putting, but I could understand his coldness and found him to be surprisingly sympathetic.
The second tells us about Billy in 1859. Young Billy is the third of five children in a desperately poor family. At seven years of age, BIlly is sold to a work house that sounds bleak and hopeless. Reminiscent of Oliver Twist, Billy endures brutal teachers, constant hunger and cold, "I wasn't alive, I was only breathing. At night in the bed in the floor I slept. I pulled the blanket right up over my head. I didn't have any thoughts. I didn't know anything to think about. And I didn't dream neither." Patience, luck, and constant effort enable Billy to change his circumstances. As Billy prospers, his life grows complicated - and his story develops.
The next three stories are of women. The third is about Elena, a brilliant scientist in futuristic Europe in 2029. The fourth, a poor and illiterate orphan Jeanne who lived and worked in small villages in France 1822. The last tells the story of a young and beautiful musician named Anya in in 1971 as told by someone fast falling in love with her as her career takes flight. The last story is full of hope and heartbreak and the ups and downs of a life devoted to the making of unforgettable music.
A Possible Life is unusual and beautifully written. I recommend them - see which stories speak to you.
on October 26, 2012
"A Possible Life" is a collection of five separate novellas with only the occasional small connection between them. They are written in five time periods, although the dates given as chapter/story titles (1938, 1859, 2029, 1822 and 1971) are just place-holders for periods of time. If there is a central theme to the stories it is that life experience is more about the complexities of human relationships (or the lack thereof) than the experiencing of events. The book's/stories' perspectives seemed to me to be distinctly English, despite the setting of three of the accounts in Italy, France and the U.S. This is particularly important when the stories focus on relationships between children and parents, I think.
I found some of these tales moving at times: a man lives through the horror of a Nazi concentration camp in the service of the killers and returns to live out the rest of his years burdened with the immensity of that experience; another man is sent away as a child to a London work house by his parents but never repudiates his obligations to that family as an adult; a woman scientist participates in scientific investigation that proves that humans have no real souls; a peasant woman lives a life of unquestioning service to a loathsome bourgeois family after a profound religious awakening; and a musician becomes the enabler for a self-absorbed singer of prodigious talent at a considerable emotional cost.
But ultimately, their impact and interest are uneven overall. For the most part, these are not characters that you like very much--and you don't get the impression that the author really wants your love as much as perhaps your respect for them. These are people thrust into situations and relationships that are painful or tedious or bewildering. They all survive in one fashion or another, and sometimes their survival is a real triumph, but mostly it's just basic survival with a modest sense of satisfaction in that achievement.
While I think there is some good story-telling in these five mostly narratives, what I would have liked to see with greater generosity from the author, was warmth and even some joy in the characters. As it is, they have been given rather meager rations of both by him, which makes the book less than it could have been (in my opinion).
This novel takes five different approaches to illuminate the way an outer life is shaped in the world. It is replete within itself, and I believe each and every part links together in an absolutely necessary way. I didn't get it at first. The first part seemed so dispassionate at first. The affect as truly hard things impacted the characters did not seem up to the task. Life for the boy coming into the workhouse feltnasnif the author was unfeeling. The characters put their heads down and slagged on through. Then with similar thoughts, I read the next part and came to a horrific exam of the character's life in a Nazi concentration camp. I was sure he didn't get it. He kept trying to live through it without reacting to the to the monstrosity of where he was.
Halfway through the second Part, I got it. It is life itself that happens. We start with molecules "spun from stars" and revised a thousand times in different lifetimes. And the world happens and we learn who we are when it happens. I loved this late awakening. I had liked the book with its rich description and lucid details from the start. And then I loved it watching the shaping of each person's turn with space dust formed into bodies and somehow made human. I kind of think it was the author's intent to reveal himself in this fashion. And I am so enamored that I looked up and ordered the other books he has written. This is the ultimate compliment from me.
Read this book and let it take you where it goes right through to the end.
A Possible Life is comprised of five stories - five lives - that are tied together not through the characters or plotting, but through time, space and connections.
Had I reviewed after reading the first tale - set in 1938 and focused on Geoffrey Talbot - I may have very well given this book just 3 stars. The story of a middling man who ends up veering from the career course his father had hoped for and eventually ends up being betrayed to the Gestapo while on a mission at first seemed archetypal and evocative. The unspeakable horrors of the concentration camp are powerfully told, but it almost seems as if the reader has read these descriptions before.
It soon becomes clear, though, that this is Sebastian Faulks' focal point: communal memory. As readers, we know these stories: the man who survives Gestapo atrocities and seeks to regain his ordinary life...the Dickensian orphan Billy in Victorian London who survives through sheer force of character...the brilliant scientist who struggles with the big questions of life and love...the simpleminded and devout orphan Jeanne in rural France... and the skinny, long-haired American singer who leverages her life for her art.
All of these characters are intimately familiar to us. The joy of reading this book is unearthing the connections between such disparate characters. Over and over again, details resonate, pricking our minds with the question, "Where have I heard this before?" For example, Geoffrey Talbot will enter a French farmhouse where he is ultimately betrayed; a century earlier, the peasant Jeanne will also have confronted a betrayal. Orphaned Jeanne will be reduced to sleeping on a mat of straw; years later, Billy Webb, another orphan, will be forced to make his bed on a mat of straw at a workhouse. And that workhouse? The songwriter's manager Jack, in the 1970s, will consider purchasing a flat in that Victorian workhouse where Billy once lived. And so on.
"I don't think you ever understand your life - not till it's finished and probably not then either," Billy reflects. Later, the scientist Elena, thinks, "If not just the brain but the quirks that made the individual from uncomposed matter only, it was hard to be sure where the edges of one such being ended and another began."
Life, Sebastian Faulks suggest, is difficult to fathom without consideration of our shared memory, the way we interconnect with those who came before and will come after us, and how all our lives fit into some vast unknowable puzzle. To him, we're all in this thing, like it or not, forever. This is, I believe, truly a brilliant book. Jack - who narrates the songwriter Anya's section - may have said it best: "The events and sensations, the stories and the things that make me what I am in the eyes of other people, the list of facts that make my life...They could be mine, they might be yours."
on November 3, 2012
Great reading! I loved that this book offered five very different stories that I was drawn into. Although each story takes place in a different time in history and even a different world location, they all seem to inter-connect in some obscure way. You have to be aware and looking for it. I loved it. When I read the middle story about Elena, that takes place in 2029 Italy, I became aware of a connection and then I really paid attention.
It is not so much a connection of family ties or anything like that. It is more a cause to realize that in our life somebody, somewhere has lived their life also, either in the same place or in the same manner as we have. All our stories could be connected by just about anything and in this book you can find connections that travel centuries and to different countries, but our story is just the same.
This was a pleasure to read with a very different writing style. I liked the concept and enjoyed the book very much.
"A novel in five parts" is a curious subtitle, and it is hard at first to see how this differs from a collection of medium-length stories. All the same, there are connections, which make the book more interesting than any of the stories would have been individually. Except perhaps the longest and last, which is virtually a standalone novella, written in a distinctly different style from the others, though drawing resonance from their ideas. I wondered, in fact, if the final story had indeed been written separately, with the other four added to make it into a saleable whole. Reading them, I was not thinking above four stars, but the last story and further reflection pushes it up to five.
Five characters, five periods, five settings: the book might almost be Faulks' answer to David Mitchell's CLOUD ATLAS, though without the ingenious interlocking of its construction. It opens in 1938 with Geoffrey, a former college jock now teaching in a boarding school. War is declared and Geoffrey signs up. For a while the tone in comfortably comic, reminiscent of Evelyn Waugh's SWORD OF HONOUR trilogy. Then he is sent to France to work undercover with the Resistance, and we are back in the world of Faulks' own CHARLOTTE GRAY. But soon the story takes a very strange turn indeed, moving in the diametrically opposite direction, into sheer horror. But somehow no more believable, no more immediate, than the mild romance of the first section. I began to feel that I wasn't reading a novel, or even a story, so much as a fable. There is a third part still to come, one which spans several decades and in which virtually nothing happens. Yet I soon realized that this was what really interested Faulks: the long descending slope of a life with any heroism long since behind it, a life lived far from the limelight, but not without its small satisfactions.
The next three stories are also fables of a kind, told mainly from the outside, and spanning most of a lifetime. We have Billy, a workhouse boy in Victorian London, Elena, an Italian neuroscientist in 2029, and Jeannette, a provincial French nursemaid after the Revolution. The shape of the stories is different in each case: Billy's is a first-person narrative; Elena achieves a great measure of outward success; and Jeannette's story is told backwards; none touch the horrors experienced by Geoffrey. They are connected by minor threads -- orphanhood, institutional living, missed romantic connections, country living, even the game of cricket. More significantly, all deal in one way or another with lonely people, with the nature of identity, with the way a single decision can affect the course of one's entire life thereafter, and with how the value of that life becomes apparent only towards the end of it.
So it was a surprise to come to the last story, "Anya," which is set in America in the early 1970s. The narrator, Jack Wyatt, is a British rock musician who has already had two successful bands. But when he meets an extraordinarily talented singer-songwriter named Anya King, he gives up everything to manage and occasionally perform with her. This story differs from the others in that it is longer and takes place over a shorter span of time and is thus more detailed, it is told in the first person and thus has an inner voice, and its trajectory involves two people equally and is thus about relationships. In other words, a true novella. More than any of the other stories, it develops the theme of the self, and how experience may be both defined and destroyed by being captured in a work of art. Anya's music is not mine, but it proved the perfect vehicle to lead me into her soul. I will remember her long after I have forgotten the others (except perhaps Geoffrey). Plus she defines in one of her songs what I take to be the central theme of the book: "Another life would be the same / My heart existing by a different name."
This is the third Sebastian Faulks book I have read, and like other readers, he had me with Birdsong and I've been a fan since. A Possible Life is written in five different sections and each short novella is an altogether different story but as with people in real life, each story shares a common thread-though all the stories are not connected or shared with characters nor with a common history as each story is vastly varied in time and place. The commonality of life and struggle are examined.
Sebastian Faulks is a wonderful writer-he remains one of my favorites. This book may not appeal to all, but each individual story is compelling and interesting to read. Some may feel that the connections could be stretched, but each story is well written and sends the reader to the engaging locale and to make a connection with the characters whether they are male or female, young or aging.
I wish some of the stories were longer because some of them appealed to me more than others and some characters I identified with easier and enjoyed their stories. All of the stories are intriguing and wortwhile to read. This is a book that can bear a second reading and perhaps even a third to become familiar with all the struggles and choices of the characters. For me, it was a fast and flowing read and since I did read it fast, a slower reading would probably reveal much more than my surface revelations. If you are a Faulks fan, I don't think you'll be disappointed with A Possible Life.
on October 29, 2012
After starting this book I put my life on hold. I was hooked from the beginning. The book is a conglomeration of five people's stories. Some stories are stronger than others but the best ones are wonderful. They're set mostly in Europe with one taking place in New York and Los Angeles. Anya's story is about a girl's rise to fame in the folk/pop scene of the 1970's. It reads like a dream yet a dream based in reality because it felt musically and emotionally deadly accurate. It has humor, love, longing; a miniature masterpiece in my opinion. Some of the other stories aren't quite as compelling (though there's another favorite of mine hidden in the batch). I'll leave you to discover your own.
The time periods vary as well from the early 1800's to the mid twenty-first century. Each story has a central event and all the action pivots around that. The study of the brain and the definition of what it is to be human is also central to each tale. In some this is overt; in others it's more oblique. There are metaphysical/spiritual overtones as well. Some of the other themes include choices, striving to succeed, the impact and definition of betrayal, scientific research and what is provable, and the cost of fame. With the myriad of settings I have to wonder if Faulks is saying time and place are not important. People stay the same as do their fundamental concerns. I'd have to agree with that premise. As I said I found the stories uneven but the best ones are so darn good I defy you to stop reading.