A Possible Life
Since the publication of Birdsong in 1993, Sebastian Faulks has reigned supreme as one of the most commercially popular literary fiction writers publishing in Britain today. Although it is nearly 20 years old now, his tale of heartbreak in the trenches of Flanders remains a firm favourite in many of his fans' hearts, and it was reintroduced to a whole new generation of potential readers earlier this year when the BBC adapted the novel into a two-part drama starring Eddie Redmayne.
Despite having published 10 novels to date - this new one, A Possible Life, is his 11th - it's his two early "French" novels, Birdsong and Charlotte Gray - the story of a Scotswoman's undercover work with the Resistance while searching for her lost lover in Vichy France during the Second World War, a role brought to life by Cate Blanchett in Gillian Armstrong's film adaptation back in 2001 - that are still the two works that Faulks's reputation rests on.
However, since the publication of his last novel, A Week in December, in 2009, he's attempted to cement his pre-eminent position as a writer who brings literature to the masses with the release, last year, of an informal history of the British novel - Faulks on Fiction: Great British Characters and the Secret Life of the Novel - and an accompanying BBC television series.
Given the genuine success of his fiction, I had high hopes for A Possible Life, so it pains me to say that I actually found it a disappointment. The tag line is "Every atom links us. Every emotion binds us. Every thought connects us", but it's precisely in its lack of connection that I found it falling wide of its mark.
There are five chapters, or what might more accurately be called sections, each is a standalone story separated from the others by both significant space and time.
The earliest date given is 1822 - this is Jeanne's story, an uneducated serving girl who's "the most ignorant person in the Limousin village where she had lived most of her life" - and the latest takes us into the not-too-distant future of a post-recession Italy in 2029, the return to predominantly rustic rural life seemingly reminiscent of the state of much of the country in the early years of the 20th century.
In between these beginning and end points we're told the stories of an English spy's forced detention in a concentration camp; a Victorian man who pulls himself up by his bootstraps following his childhood in the workhouse; and a fledgling musician's rise to stardom in 1970s America. The stories are not told in chronological order, and, on first glance, you'd be hard pushed to find any clearly discernible links between them. On closer reading however, faint connections can be made: the reappearance of a badly chipped plaster Madonna; the Victorian workhouse that is converted into flashy apartments in late 20th-century East London; the appearance of the same minor character in two of the stories - rather neatly, in this case, the two that bookend the collection.
Call me a purist, but if a book's being billed as a novel, I expect something more than a series of barely connected novellas bound together between the same cover. Obviously, Faulks isn't the first to follow this structure - some of the more notable uses include David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, Alice Munro's Lives of Girls and Women, and even Hubert Selby Jr's Last Exit to Brooklyn - but each of these authors was able to make the connections between their various stories more tangible.
Once I'd read the first chapter, I became somewhat preoccupied attempting to pinpoint the connections between the various characters and their circumstances; so much so that I couldn't help but find myself wishing that he had simply described what he'd written as a collection of long short stories.
The irony being that I would have hailed the exact same elements I'm identifying here as problematic, as successful and subtle links between the individual pieces instead.
This isn't to say that you won't find much of what you're reading gripping, moving and disturbing in equal measure, but there's still a sense of imbalance at work, given that two of the five stories are really excellent, a third follows closely in their footsteps, while the other two quite frankly bored me. In fact, the book begins and ends strongly; it's just what's in between that dissatisfies.
In the first story, Geoffrey Talbot, a young French teacher, drifts into intelligence work in the Second World War only to become jaded by the surprisingly pedestrian nature of being little more than a messenger. His thirst for adventure takes a somewhat nightmarish twist however, when, captured by the Germans, instead of sitting out the rest of the conflict in a prisoner-of-war camp subsisting off "parcels" sent from "his parents in Hampshire", he finds himself put to work in the Red Cross-free confines of a Nazi death camp.
This mild-mannered schoolmaster becomes a cog in the Nazi machine: herding French Jews to their deaths in the shower blocks; shovelling corpses by the hundreds into the crematorium ovens; and clearing mass graves where the land had subsided, "leaving ponds and pools of such fetor that even the Alsatian dogs would not go near".
The contrast between the England of afternoon tea and the unimaginable horrors of the camp ,where men hang themselves by the dozens unable to bear the screams of the women and children being slowly gassed to death, while Talbot fishes "viscera and limbs" out of swampy pools in the ground with a boat hook, is almost unbearable. Here, Faulks's depictions cut right to the bone without being at all emotive or sentimental.
This sense of detachment infuses his prose throughout, but in no other story does it work so effectively. The same aloofness that holds the first story together makes some of the others read as stilted and underdeveloped. The tale of a workhouse pauper made good finding comfort in the arms of his wife's sister while his bride lies catatonic in an asylum for 15 years is a poignant depiction of the bonds of family. Yet the stories of Jeanne, the stupid French servant, and Elena, a gifted Italian neuroscientist whose research proves that human consciousness is entirely "neurodevelopmental", killing, once and for all, any notion of a human soul, each left me strangely unmoved.
The final chapter of the novel concerns itself with the relationship between Anya, a singer/songwriter at the beginning of her career, and her manager. It's by far the meatiest of all the stories and, as he's done previously in the likes of On Green Dolphin Street and Birdsong, Faulks evokes the quiet but nevertheless existence-consuming experience of an intense and life-altering love affair. The piece is delicately beautiful, marred only by the inclusion of some slightly wishy-washy song lyrics that would, I think, have been much better left to the reader's imagination.
Perhaps, though, I'm just like the music critics who aren't able to "grasp the size of what they'd heard" when they're reviewing Anya's first album. I'm assuming that Faulks' goal was to produce a whole that added up to more than the sum of its parts, but I can't quite make the calculation work.
Lucy Scholes is a freelance journalist who lives in London.