‘A Possible Life’ by Sebastian Faulks, is ‘a novel in five parts’. However, it’s not a novel as much as a collection of stories, spread out over various periods in time, from the past, present, and even the future, with the word ‘possible’ being the key to connecting them.
The five stories are of different characters in different time frames, facing different situations, but each of them has have made choices which have changed the direction of their lives. Each of their stories could have had a different ending, but it is the possibilities in life which give the stories the direction they take.
The first story, to me at least, was the most poignant. ‘A different man’ follows the life of Geoffrey Talbot, an unassuming man who sails through college playing cricket, and lands an unexciting teaching job. His life takes a turn with the beginning of the Second World War, when he enlists, and finds himself in occupied France, dodging bullets and getting around, hiding under railway coaches. A second twist of fate sees him captured and slaving away at a German concentration camp. The narrative is engaging, and you come to feel for Geoffrey as he imagines himself playing cricket, just to keep himself sane. We have read enough of the holocaust to know its horrors, and Faulks does not hide the reality. However, he manages to retain a sense of balance, of calmness, if I can use the word, with a wry sense of humour which keeps cropping up at the unlikeliest of places, yet not in any way diluting the horror of it all. We feel a rush of happiness and excitement when Geoffrey manages to escape and gets back home safe, but his life can never be the same again, not after his experiences. You cannot but help feel sad for Geoffrey as he goes back to France in search of his lost love, as he is confined to an asylum at last, but there is no sense of pity... it’s just the course life has taken.
The second story ‘The second sister’ follows the life of Billy, as told in his own words. Sent to the poor house in his childhood, Billy tries to cope with the separation from his parents, and then meets Alice, a fellow inmate. Billy makes the most of his life, picking up opportunities with both hands, and in spite of all the disadvantages, makes a life for himself, marries Alice, and starts a family. It might have been a fairy tale, except that the young Alice suffers a stroke, and soon, Billy falls in love with her sister. Then again, the story could have simply continued, but it twists once again, with Alice recovering and returning to the family.
The third story, ‘Everything can be explained’ is set in the future, and traces the life of Elena, a young, lonely girl, who grows up to be an acclaimed Neuroscientist, delving into the realm of the human consciousness. Struggling with love for Bruno, an orphan adopted by her father, she strives to cope with her feelings, unable to accept the change in him, and eventually, at the end, wonders if, after years of studying human behaviour, if she understands anything at all!
The fourth story is the shortest one – A door into heaven – where a ignorant young peasant girl meets a monk, and the fifth – You next time – in complete contrast, details the lives of young musicians.
To me, the first two stories were the best, but all through the book, Sebastian Faulks’ narrative stands tall. He straddles the different periods and voices with ease, speaking as the school teacher Geoffrey in one, and easily shifting to the uneducated Billy in the other. The voice of Elena is perfectly suited to what one would expect of a scientist, and you can almost hear Lowri’s soulful voice as she holds her audience spellbound. And that is what makes this book, to me, a wonderful read.