I love Sebastian Faulks. As far as I’m concerned, he’s the bee’s knees. Him and Ian McEwan, they can be a knee each. (I’ll let Oscar Wilde be the wings, that would be suitably poetic for him). However, as much as I love Sebastian Faulks, I must admit that A Possible Life was a bit of an odd one for me, not necessarily in a negative way, but I couldn’t quite work out what to make of it.
A Possible Life is a novel told in five parts, with each part focusing on a different character or characters. Occasionally a fairly minor character will feature in more than one part, or a familiar location will appear again further down the line, but essentially these five parts are completely separate and unrelated stories, which are lumped together to form one novel. That’s one of the things that puzzled me slightly, there’s nothing that really links these stories together and so I can’t work out why it’s these specific stories that are being told, or why they’ve been featured together. As for the stories themselves, there’s a real mix and some are more memorable than others, by far.
Part I – A Different Man was by far the most memorable, and also the most emotional of the stories for me. It’s about a British soldier who becomes a prisoner of war and has to witness and partake in the most horrific atrocities, suffering a nervous breakdown and post traumatic stress many years down the line. It’s a great opener for the novel because it’s by far the most gripping of each of the parts, and definitely the strongest link in the chain.
Part II – The Second Sister is one of the sections I instantly forgot about as soon as I moved on to the next one. I’m not quite sure why because it wasn’t the weakest story, but when you’ve got five different stories to contend with in one novel it’s extremely hard to keep track of the earlier ones unless there’s something incredibly vivid to hold your attention (or harrowing, as in A Different Man). The Second Sister details the life of a boy who was given to the workhouse because his parents couldn’t afford to keep him, and his later marriage and relationship with Alice, his childhood workhouse sweetheart, and her sister.
Part III – Everything Can Be Explained is about a girl’s relationship with her newly adopted brother, and how that relationship develops and changes through changing family circumstances and adulthood. It’s another section that just slipped out of the grasp of my memory, although I had quite a strong feel for the characters of Elena and Bruno, and I think Bruno might actually have been my favourite character in the book. I’m a sucker for a quiet and tormented soul.
Part IV – A Door into Heaven still doesn’t quite make sense to me. It was definitely the weakest of all of the stories. When I started writing this review, I could only clearly remember Parts I and V. I could recall pretty much the whole story of Parts II and III once I’d reminded myself of the titles, but Part IV remained completely out of my grasp because I didn’t really have a clue what was happening while I was reading it anyway. It’s about a governess called Jeanne (I know that much), who potentially has some kind of learning difficulties. Her story is to do with the family she raises and watches grow up, but there are other undertones that I can’t quite put my finger on, and I can’t work out for certain if a priest is trying to take advantage of her or not, or exactly what’s going on in certain scenes. It might just be me being dense, but I just couldn’t get a handle on this section at all, and I didn’t particularly enjoy it. Happily it was the shortest of all the sections, but to be honest I’m not entirely sure why it was included at all. All of the stories are so different from each other, I just can’t work out why they needed to be told together. Again, that’s not necessarily a negative comment, I’m just a bit confused by it all.
The final part, Part V – You Next Time, is the longest of all of the sections. It’s told from the point of view of a man who falls in love with a folk singer, and accompanies her on her tours as she becomes more and more successful and struggles to cope with the pressure. It’s one of the sections I can remember most clearly, and I get the feeling that it’s meant to be the main/big story of the novel. I’m not really sure why I think that – maybe because it’s the longest, maybe because it’s the last in the book. It’s certainly one of the most memorable, and yet at the same time it was one of the ones I was least interested in. I liked the main character a lot, but I couldn’t stand Anya, I just wanted to give her a shake and tell her to pull herself together. Sadly this also meant that Freddy dropped in my estimation a bit with all his senseless mooning over her.
As you can probably tell by now, A Possible Life was a bit of a mixed bag for me. I think the story of Geoffrey the soldier was definitely the most powerful, and I’d have happily read a novel-length version of his story alone. Anyone who’s read Birdsong knows how emotively Sebastian Faulks writes about wartime horrors, but with a quiet subtlety that’s really quite wonderful. It’s this kind of writing that meant I really couldn’t put Geoffrey’s story down. I think I read the book in one sitting, or one day at least, which is probably why I found it harder to recall some of the stories afterwards, but it’s more than fair to say that the writing was brilliant throughout and the characterisation was strong. I’m just not entirely sure that the five parts make an effective novel. Looking at each of them individually, they did work well (apart from the strange section with the governess, I can’t be reconciled with that one). I think I’d probably have been able to retain a hold on the individual stories if I looked at them separately rather than as one novel as well. It’s an interesting idea, but they don’t make a cohesive whole. If you don’t need to look at them that way, then you have five (well, four) entertaining stories to enjoy, and each story (again, minus Part IV) probably has enough merit of its own to make reading the whole book worthwhile.
Read previous Book Review featuring Marina Lewycka’s A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, or see a review of Sebastian Faulks’ A Fool’s Alphabet (which was my first ever review on this blog and probably not at all up to scratch, don’t judge me!)