Sebastian Faulks is best known for rich historical novels like Charlotte Gray and Birdsong. In his new work, A Possible Life, history is used as a backdrop to explore what connects us, suggesting that there are certain commonalities of thought, feeling and experience despite differences of time and place. This beautifully written novel is actually five self-contained character studies moving from 19th-century France to 2027 Italy, with several stops in between.
A Possible Life begins with Geoffrey, a British schoolmaster who volunteers to go to France as part of a special unit during WWII. He is captured by the Nazis and sent to a death camp in Poland, where he is put to work assisting with the incineration of men, women and children. He is changed by this experience, even, he suggests, at a molecular level. Faulks then moves to 19th-century London and the tale of young Billy, whose parents bring him to the workhouse after they can no longer afford to feed him. Billy’s rise from poverty to landlord, from orphan to parent, demonstrates how profoundly the circumstances of an individual can change in the course of a lifetime.
The next shift is to the near future with Elena, an Italian neuroscientist researching the mysteries of consciousness. Elena grows up in a farm, the kind of young girl who enjoys playing alone in the woods with only her imagination to keep her company. When her father brings home a young boy that he plans to adopt, Elena’s privacy is shattered. She never really recovers from the experience but uses those emotions as the basis for much of her research as an adult. Faulks moves from higher consciousness to barely conscious in the story of the ill-used servant Jeanne. Though she can barely express a sense of self, her life is illuminated by the Bible stories she hears in church. The final and longest story follows the career of Anya King, a Joni Mitchell-like singer songwriter in the late ’60s/early ’70s, told from the point of view of a man who falls deeply in love with her.
Each of the five characters in A Possible Life is searching for a connection with others and for meaning in their lives. With each choice, there is an awareness of a life not led and a crisis survived, often leading to a renewal of the spirit. One could quibble over whether this is really a novel or a collection of stories, but that may be missing the point. For those of us who remember listening to music on albums, A Possible Life is most reminiscent of an LP—a gathering of distinct expressions that together make up a satisfying whole.