Is there such a thing as a soul? If not, what makes us so certain than the lives we lead and the identities we inhabit are even relevant? Do you ever wonder, for example, what would have happened if you’d taken that road, instead of this one? And is it possible to know which one, of all the dozens of decisions we make every day, will be the one whose significance will echo on down for generations to come?
These are the melancholy questions that permeate Sebastian Faulks’ new book, “A Possible Life”. I call it a book, so that I can get on and review it – leaving the literati to bicker about whether it qualifies as a novel or not. Because on the surface, it doesn’t. The five separate stories have no apparent links to each other apart from their shared spine.
The first story is set in 1938 and revolves around Geoffrey Talbot, a fairly underwhelming middle-class fellow who, in an unlikely series of events, finds himself behind the wire in a concentration camp in Poland.
The second story maps out the life of Billy, a Dickensian sort of character raised in a poorhouse who succeeds in life through sheer force of will and entrepreneurial spirit.
The third story is set in the future and belongs to Elena, an Italian scientist whose life’s work has culminated in the irrefutable evidence that our sense of consciousness is merely a specific location in the brain whose cyclical processes aid in the reproduction of matter. In other words, there’s no such thing as a “soul”. In fact, everything about human behaviour and emotion can be scientifically explained.
Fourth we meet Jeanne, living at the other end of the spectrum in early 1800s in France. Her story is less about her own life than the people she devotes herself to in her work as a servant.
The final story and the one that hammers the book for six, is that of American folk singer/songwriter Anya King. It is told from the perspective of the man who loved her and lost her, and whose entire life afterwards was insignificant to the point of almost physical anguish.
Each story is satisfyingly complete, which, although I swear I don’t want to be drawn into the debate, is an argument in favour of “A Possible Life” as a novel. Short stories, as a rule, don’t lay out a life in its entirety so you can examine it piece by piece. In fact, more often, you’ll drop in on a short story right in the middle of the action only to be left to fill in the gaps when the narrative just as suddenly drops you in mid-air. In Faulks’ book, in contrast, each of his independent stories are offered up whole. They are, in effect, biographies of lives with all the significant forks and intersections laid bare for scrutiny.
Taken individually, the stories reveal intricate tapestries whose threads you can trace from here, all the way over there. Take Geoffrey Talbot as an example. He might never have found himself disposing of bodies into a burning chute had he not slunk off for a beer in the pub that fateful night when he was meant to be mapping out attack routes in a training exercise with a fellow officer.
Geoffrey survived the war but was a broken man afterwards, unable to permit himself the joy of companionship, much less love. As an old man, alone, lonely, he cannot seem to reconcile why it is that he fought so hard to preserve his life. Through the hell of the war and the torment of peace, he placed one foot in front of the other with all the effort he could muster, but never once stopped to ask himself ‘Why?’. As if there is no logic to it he says:
“I have been violently loyal to myself.”
The stories also throw a torch on the randomness of life. The things that boil down to nothing more than chance, circumstance, bad timing. When opportunities arise in Billy’s life, for example, he is wide-eyed mentally and prepared physically, thanks only to his brutally unforgiving childhood. That hardship would not have been his destiny, had it not been for the Crimean war that stole his father’s livelihood and sent them broke.
Billy’s story is intriguing enough on its own but what resonates is his final statement, that all he’d ever wanted to do in life was work hard enough that his own children would never have to know what ‘the grinding of stones’ feels like. It is as though Billy is asserting that the only way to understand life and all its unlikely chances is to bend with it, but not to break:
“being sure you [keep] your mind so empty that you [have] no thoughts at all. That’s what I’ve done for [my kids], that’s my gift to them and to all their children ever after, so don’t talk to me about being hard.”
And what Faulks’ book would be complete without a fair dose of irony? The stories of Elena the scientist, and Jeanette the unquestioning Christian, are juxtaposed perfectly for this purpose. Elena has sought to understand her life, and all the matters to do with existence, by filtering every human emotion through a scientific lens. And yet, for all of that, no amount of rationalisation of her feelings towards Bruno can numb the raw physical reaction when he abandons her.
“His absence was a wound that never ceased to seep and throb. It was absurd, she told herself. What mattered was the love they felt; whether or not they were in the same room was of no significance. It would not be long before, as physical mass, they were both decomposing underground; so what did it matter if meanwhile their bodies were in different places? [..] So much did she rely on her rational brain to guide her life that she was angry when it failed her now, when no process of reason could stop her wound from aching.”
Jeanette, on the other hand, is genuinely confused by the motivations of the people around her. She knows that the things in life that can be explained exist in plain sight, whereas what is not known is the domain of God. Hers is not to question, but with a bit of luck and certainly faith, to get on with the business of living. She is simplistic, but not, as the narrator tells us “ignorant” at all:
“Clemence and Marcel had shown her that people change and are not the same all their lives. Madame Lagarde taught her that sometimes they cannot change.”
Wherein you find yourself wondering: Who is happier, Elena or Jeanette?
The twin issues of love and loss are probably the most enduring themes underlying all the stories, but it is never more stark than in that of singer-songwriter Anya King’s. Many other issues besides the most grimly depressing are explored as well; from the idea of the self as multiple stage-actors to the contention that it is possible to love two people, if not equally then concurrently.
But it is the exploration of what it means to love someone so wholly and unreservedly that you would walk away if they asked you to, that really packs a punch in this story. Anya is not an ordinary woman; in fact, she is so vivid that it is incredible to think that I cannot just dial her up on iTunes and download one of her albums. I came to know her songs as intimately as if they were a soundtrack for the entire book; a quirk that is undoubtedly intentional on Faulks’ part.
Jack, or ‘Freddy’ as Anya affectionately calls him, tells of their affair looking back from the vantage point of his 60 years. His love for Anya has never faded, in fact, over time it appears magnified beside everything else. With echoes of Frank from the pages of “On Green Dolphin Street”, Jack says:
“It pained my heart to think of what I’d lost, but I didn’t go with the feeling. Sometimes with these powerful emotions, you’re crushed. You just flail around and hope for the pain to stop, for some bastard to stop stabbing you in the guts. Other times if you’re lucky, you can kind of skate along the rim, look into the precipice and it’s almost like you have a choice – to plunge in or turn your head away.”
The great emotive impulse at stake here has to do with sacrifice; what are you willing to forego, in order to pursue what you know you must do in life? Or the flip-side of that coin: what are you willing to sacrifice in order to allow the person you love to pursue what you know they must do in life. Whether it is a creative calling, the greater good, or just doing the right thing. What are you willing to endure towards that end? This is Jack’s dilemma, and the reason Anya, fully conscious yet far more vulnerable than she ever lets on, loves him all the more.
This is not a simple book to be done with. It is, as others have already said, like a symphony which continues to resonate long after the final notes have been played. Or an album that you need to listen to again and again. I kept pondering the title “A Possible Life”; and for that matter, the titles of Anya’s songs – “You Next Time”. “Another Life”. “No Turning Back”. And of course “Hold Me”. I felt certain they were all clues to a riddle I was going to be able to solve if I just looked hard enough.
Certainly there are links between the stories, both implied and literal: Jack rents an apartment in London which just so happens to be Billy’s old workhouse. The Madonna that Elena treasures as a child is the very same figurine that Jeanette holds in her hands two centuries earlier. And we recognise that the old farm house where Jeanette lives most her life is the same place where Geoffrey is betrayed years later.
At first, these discoveries are exhilarating; a promise that everything in the universe is connected in some way. A unique purpose or reason exists after all! But as soon as you start digging deeper, you hit dead ends. The trail goes cold. Proof irrefutable, that even though we may inhabit the same spaces from time to time, and in minute ways we certainly influence one other, in the end we are separate beings. The why’s and wherefores, the what if’s and maybe’s, will never be entirely resolved.
In this way, Jack’s parting sentiment, referencing in more ways than one the characters that have gone before him, serves as a kind of poignant summary for the whole book:
“I stood among the throng of people waiting patiently to cross and tried to mingle with them, to disappear into a greater mass of human life, hoping I might lose my pain, my sense of self, in that tireless commotion.”
To the critics and reviewers out there who seem hell-bent on deciding whether this book is a novel or a collection of short stories, as though anything that defies categorisation is unworthy of ‘real consideration’, I feel sorry for you. While you were busy trying to stick your labels on non-adhesive surfaces, you just missed one of the most moving pieces of literature I have read in a very long time.
Full disclosure: I received my copy of “A Possible Life” from Random House. I received neither money nor cocktails for writing this review – gotta work on that!