Sebastian Faulks is widely credited with being one of Britain’s best living authors. Birdsong is definitely his masterpiece, and I have also read Charlotte Grey, On Green Dolphin Street, Engleby and Human Traces which I have listed in descending order of enjoyment. Somehow the publication of A Possible Life had passed me by, but I picked this up after Christmas spending my gift vouchers on a ‘3 for 2’ offer and have just got around to reading it.
Faulks calls it “a novel in five parts” but other reviewers have suggested it is better approached as a set of short stories. It is five very different stories in terms of time, place, plot and narrative voice but there are linking themes and some recurring motifs.
Part I- A Different Man recounts the key moments of Geoffrey Talbot’s life, a so-so Oxford graduate and cricketer who becomes a school teacher and, due to his bilingualism from his French mother, joins Britain’s secret operations during the war. Betrayed by a French agent, him and a friend end up in a Nazi extermination camp which he does (SPOILER!) survive physically but is badly emotionally damaged for the rest of his life.
Part II- The Second Sister is told by Billy Webb, given up and sent to a Victorian workhouse as a child because his family couldn’t afford him, he eventually becomes wealthy enough to build himself up a business as a local landlord. He marries Alice, a girl who shows him kindness while he was at his lowest ebb but when she succumbs to a debilitating illness and is taken into a new hospital for ‘incurables’, starts a new relationship with her sister, Nancy.
Part III- Everything Can Be Explained is set in near future Italy (although it took me a little time to work the timing out) with Elena Duranti, a brilliant but socially isolated child, brought out of her shell by her family adopting an orphan, Bruno. After her father dies, Bruno is set away by her mother and Elena, whilst becoming a very famous scientist who discovers the scientific basis of consciousness, misses him for the rest of her life.
Part IV- A Door into Heaven follows Jeanne, “the most ignorant person” in her early 19th Century, Limousin village. She is a maid for a lower middle class family and brings up their two children who she sees go away and come back different people. At the end she looks back on one of the formative experiences of her own life when she lived as a washerwoman in a monastery and thought she had found Christ in the form of a young monk.
Finally Part V- You Next Time is narrated by Jack Wyatt, a former member of a successful band now living in New York State occasionally visited by musician friends who come to hang out, smoke grass and jam. One day a girl called Anya King turns up. She is a Joni Mitchell like singer-songwriter with a haunting voice and deeply personal lyrics about her life. Jack becomes her manager, falls in love with her and helps her to become famous.
The overarching idea in all these five stories is, I think, rebirth. Not in the sense of reincarnation, although there is a hint that has happened as one character dreams about the lives of a few of the others, but in the sense of changing your life while you are living it. Each story is moving and interesting, although I found Part V, the longest, a little self-indulgent and less profound than the others. The writing is understated and the characters vividly drawn.