Not quite a novel

2012-11-28 00:00


A Possible Life

Sebastian Faulks


 SEBASTIAN Faulks never quite does the expected. Since Birdsong, he has been hailed as a novelist to be celebrated, a member of the British literary establishment. He has written several other well-received novels (Engleby being my favourite), various volumes of non-fiction and a James Bond sequel/pastiche, Devil May Care. Now his publishers have publicised A Possible Life as a novel, which it is not.

What it is, is a collection of five novellas, linked by theme and, very tenuously, by place. The theme seems to be that even the most insignificant lives will have an impact on those around them at the time they are lived and on into the future. It’s not a new idea, but Faulks handles it thoughtfully and impressively.

In one of the stories, the only one set in the future, researchers identify the part of the brain that makes us self-aware, although it seems to be one of those discoveries no one quite knows what to do with. But in all the stories, there is a telling moment of self-awareness that gives the protagonists their identity.

The problem with the format Faulks has chosen is that, while he establishes fascinating characters, there isn’t quite enough of any of them: almost all the novellas could have been expanded into full-length novels, and as you reach the end of a section, you feel slightly unsatisfied. I found this particularly a problem with the first piece, A Different Man, about a very mediocre young school teacher who finds himself parachuted into France in World War 2 and ends up in a concentration camp. Somehow, too little of him is explained to make his apocalyptic moment comprehensible.

But, as Faulks moves between mid-20th-century Britain, mid-19th-century London, mid-21st-century Italy, France in the time of Napoleon, and the United States in the sixties at the height of the pop revolution, he holds the reader’s attention, despite the disjointedness of the format. He is a fine writer, and the reader has to work as well, which is satisfying.


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