Reviewed by Maggie Rainy-Smith
You cannot help but be a little awed by the scope of Sebastian’ Faulk’s imagination. In this novel he explores not just A Possible Life but many ‘possible lives’. They are all quite fascinating as stand-alone stories, so the question arises... is this a novel? That’s what I asked myself as I was reading it. The back blurb tells us “From the pain and drama of these highly particular lives emerges a mysterious consolation; the chance to feel your heart beat in someone else’s life. And it’s true. For Faulks has this extraordinary ability to make you feel as if you do inhabit his character’s lives.
It’s true too that the stories are sometimes linked by a chance detail that catches you unaware suggesting our connectedness, or at least that of his characters. The first story ‘A Different Man’ begins with the mostly unremarkable Geoffrey Talbot who having been rejected from the Diplomatic Service takes up a teaching career. And then at the start of World War II, he volunteers for service and through interesting circumstances (a failure as a trainee officer), instead of the front-line, he ends up working as a spy in France. It’s a benign sort of story as it begins, but remember this is the writer who called the most harrowing account of trench warfare ‘Birdsong’ – so don’t be fooled. The first story moves unexpectedly into the gruesome heart of a concentration camp. I found myself deeply shocked at the imaginative detail of this part of the story. And then the story returns to the more benign, as Geoffrey resumes his teaching position, traumatised by his war experience. It ends on an affecting note when he falls ill and one of his former students visits him in hospital, a small but very touching incident – this mixing of the extreme and the ordinary, something Faulks is so good at.
The second story, Part II the Second Sister, begins rather bleakly with the narrator aged seven being dropped off at the Union House by his Mother because the family have hit hard times(he’s one of the middle children of five so they had to cruelly choose which child they will abandon to the Union House). But bleak as it may begin, this story is of survival and I found strangely sad, but also oddly uplifting. The narrator learns to live by his wits and to get ahead and finds love and it is his love story that is the most unusual. I’d just been to Bats theatre and seen ‘White Cloud’ by Ken Duncum and Tim Finn, and one of the Pakeha settler characters sang/spoke a narrative about an ancestor who had suffered a peculiar malady, a sort of temporary loss of sanity and mobility. In this Second Sister story, a similar thing occurs and I think had I not been to the play, I may well have doubted this story’s even fictional credibility.
‘Everything can be explained’ is the third story and set in the future, 2029 in fact. It is the story of Elena and Bruno, raised as brother and sister. It’s both a story of and explanation for love and a rather complex almost parable. The mutant gene for human self-awareness is discovered by accident. There’s a moment when Bruno and Elena meet up, as adults with separate lives and Bruno says “ ... ‘But the trouble with me, said Bruno, ‘is that I have more than one story. You’re the main character in this one. In the hills here.’ He put his hand against his head.” I recall reading something very similar recently in Iain Banks’ ‘Stonemouth’, a line I loved but forgot to quote in my review of this book “we all sort of secretly think our lives are like these very long movies, with ourselves as the principal characters.”
Part IV – A Door into Heaven is primarily the story of Jeanne who ‘was said to be the most ignorant person in the Limousin village where she had lived most of her life.’ Indeed, this is the first sentence of this section. But Jeanne’s very small ignorant life is magnified to have meaning through her constant and enduring faith, the very thing that keeps her ignorant is both beautiful and terrible. And even when Marcel one of the young children she is responsible for as a child, returns maimed from war to find comfort at the family home where Jeanne still lives - and begins reading to her from the bible (awful stories she’s never heard before that she hates), her faith remains unshaken. A farmhouse that is part of Geoffrey Talbot’s story, a century or so later, is also, briefly part of Jeanne’s life.
Part V – You Next Time is a small masterpiece really. Faulks has inhabited the life of a musician in 70’s California. I had no idea, but I see from other reviews I have read, that it is loosely based on Joan Baez (Guardian review by Helen Dunmore) and then locally, Christopher Howe reviewing on his blog for the Booksellers NZ reckons it is “the re-imagining of the love affair between Joni Mitchell and Graham Nash”. Whomever it is loosely based on, the imaginative detail is impressive and you could almost believe that Faulks himself had inhabited this life. Of course, I’ve not been a muso in the 70’s in California and so I can only join Faulks here in the imaginative leap, but it was fascinating. If you are the good fortune to be something of an old muso and have a half decent knowledge of music, this section will reward two-fold. I know I missed out here, having no technical skills in the understanding of music and how it is created, but for a short while, I felt I did. This too is a powerful love story.
I end with the question still on my lips… is it a novel and how is it a novel? I think about Fiona Kidman’s latest collection of short stories ‘The Trouble with Fire’ and how the stories are linked by the theme of fire both actual and metaphorical – and how too, characters reappear in stories and yet, this is unequivocally, a collection of short stories. Is this because Kidman tells us so, and is ‘A Possible Life’ a novel merely because Faulks has the audacity to say so?
Well, here is the final sentence from the final section (and not a plot spoiler I might add). “So when eventually my hour comes and I go down in that darkness, into the blackness of the black-painted wings, there’ll be no need to mourn me or repine. Because I think we’re all in this thing, like it or not, for ever.”
So, does the last sentence somehow make this collection, finally, a novel -.....? I’ll leave it for you to decide for yourself because whatever genre you agree or disagree on, you’ll no doubt agree with me, the stories are a fascinating look at the human condition, what makes us who we are, nature versus nurture, the whole existential shebang.
Maggie Rainey-Smith (right) is a Wellington writer and regular guest reviewer on Beattie's Book Blog. She is also Chair of the Wellington branch of the NZ Society of Authors.
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