A Possible Life
By Sebastian Faulks
Hutchinson/Random House Struik
REVIEW: Karin Schimke
I am a fan of Sebastian Faulks. He had me hooked from Birdsong and wriggling happily all the way through to Engelby. Then came A Week In December and I thought the spell had been broken.
It hasn’t been. A Possible Life fills, satisfies, warms and holds the reader just like Human Traces and Charlotte Grey and On Green Dolphin Street did.
I have always liked Faulks for his ability to enliven and humanise history; here it is history – and future – that enlivens the characters, by pulling a thread from past to future.
The effect is a sense of wholeness, a wide-angle lens view on life beyond the brackets of individuals’ births and deaths. This book, with its five apparently unrelated stories, unrolls a historical universe which provides a perspective on life so large that it reminded me of the feeling I used to get when Carl Sagan’s TV series “Cosmos” opened up the universe in my parents’ living room.
In the introduction to that series, Sagan says: “Our contemplation of the cosmos stirs us…we know we are approaching the grandest of mysteries.”
For Faulks, in A Possible Life, the grandest mystery is “why humans are as they are” as Elena, the main character in the middle story, asks. To demonstrate this unfathomable mystery, he tells us five stories, each placed in a different time in history.
The first is about a mild-mannered and educated linguist who leaves teaching to become a British agent in France in the Second World War, recalling the milieu of Faulks’s fourth novel Charlotte Grey.
In the second part, we meet Billy, sent to work in a Victorian workhouse because his shoe-maker father has fallen on hard times. Through sheer dogged survival he overcomes abandonment, hunger, cruelty and illiteracy to create a life for himself and his family.
The third story is set in Italy in the near future, and tells the story of the scientifically minded Elena who is given a unique chance to investigate self-awareness in humans which allows them “to infer thought processes in others and to predict what they are going to do; [which lets them] them empathise, guess, anticipate, manipulate, out-think, out-fight – and, where necessary, co-operate”.
In the fourth we meet Jeanne, “the most ignorant person in the Limousin village where she spent most of her life”, a nursemaid to the two children of a rich landowner whose wife is incapacitated by depression.
And finally, set in the early part of the 1970s – amongst the hippie communes and hopefulness of the folk rock music industry – the story of Jack, who is renamed Freddie by his Joan Baez-like lover Anya.
The initial pages of the “novel” – it is moot that it is a novel when the stories are so distant from one another in time and place – were slow-going. Faulks seemed to ring fence his character Geoffrey, who appears both objectively rather boring and emotionally uninteresting. It is only once Geoffrey reaches France and is later taken prisoner by German soldiers that the story’s own momentum engaged me, even though the character himself remained closed.
This arms-length characterisation is, I believe, a style choice, and is not evident in some of the other characters whose inner lives are less puzzling to the reader. On the one hand, making Geoffrey of the first story, Billy of the second story and Jeanne of the fourth story closed, he is demonstrating their own incapacities for self-examination and introspection. In each case, this stunted emotional response to life is a natural consequences of the social and familial circumstances each was born into.
This detachment enhances one of the key themes of the book, which is how we become the people we are through our involvement with others, and how there is a search always for the Other, for some completing and fulfilling finishing of the self through relationships, particularly through a primary love relationship. Finally, each of these characters – and each of us – is essentially alone in the world in spite of a search for communion, in spite of the generation before us, the love we share with a partner or the generation we give birth too.
Faulks also toys with endlessly with the nature versus nurture debate. Does what we are reside in our bones, drive us from within our DNA? Or are we what we become because of what happens to us? Placing the scientific character Elena – and her history and story minded adopted brother Bruno – at the centre of the book, the writer demonstrates his preoccupation with these questions, but resists giving any answer.
Instead, he takes in entire lives, allowing glimpses into moments of illumination and transcendence that break through even the bleakest lives.
Each story carries within it echoes, symbols, material things (a small Madonna bust, a farm house) from the other four stories. They’re not always easy to spot, and once spotted, not always easy to link – sometimes even seeming ever so slightly contrived. Yet, again, this presses home the largeness of the loop of life, our “recycled brains” (as Elena puts it), the patterns of repetition from generation to generation, and century to century.
Critics have muttered about the looseness of the ties between the stories, and a sense that they link too obscurely. I had no such issues: there is a lucid refrain, a recurring melody of inquiry in A Possible Life and each story sings in harmony. – Schimke is an independent writer, a poet and the editor of the Cape Times books page.