Reviewed in five parts by Liam Callanan
A Possible Life actually consists of five possible lives, each treated to its own independent, brief fictional biography in this unusual, polished, and strangely provocative book.
Geoffrey’s story, which opens the volume, begins in England in 1938; it’s followed by the stories of Billy (1859, also in England); Elena (2029, Italy); Jeanne (1822, France); and Anya (1971, the United States, and later, England).
They vary in length, but not in effect or scope: each is a compelling, engrossing, unsettling look at the whole of someone’s life. Part of what’s unsettling is how old-fashioned this kind of storytelling feels; contemporary short fiction more frequently focuses on episodes or fragments of a character’s life, rather than the entire arc.
But what’s proved far more unsettling for many readers and reviewers are two short words Faulks chose to stick on the cover: a novel.
Faulks is best known for wartime novels set in France: his Birdsong largely takes place during the first World War, and Charlotte Gray focuses on the French Resistance in World War II.
Thus the first character in Faulks’s new book not only feels possible but familiar. Geoffrey, not unlike the eponymous heroine of Charlotte Gray, fumbles his way into the French resistance during the second World War, aided by the French language skills he acquired as a child.
Quickly betrayed, Geoffrey is dispatched to a Polish concentration camp. Though he later escapes, that’s not the adventure that interests Faulks. Rather, he turns the story’s focus to Geoffrey’s quiet, painful postwar re-entry into civilian life, and the strenuously negotiated happiness he finally finds. Faulks writes that “some subtle rearrangement of particles [that] had taken place within him; he felt with joy and resignation that he was not the same man.”
And then Geoffrey disappears from the text, and a young boy from another century, Billy, takes over the narration.
The new story is dramatic—Billy is immediately dispatched to a workhouse by his poverty-stricken family in Victorian London—and so, too, is the vertigo that comes from skipping a century, but still, as Billy spends his days picking oakum and dining on bread, cheese and water, we find ourselves thinking, wait, what happened to Geoffrey?
And: is this really a novel?
Faulks, discussing A Possible Life with Vanity Fair: “It is a novel, and it’s a novel basically because I say so! It’s perfectly possible to have a single work of fiction that’s made up of parts that are not tied up in a single narrative. I think the simplest way to explain it is to compare it to a piece of music. When you go to a concert hall and you hear a Beethoven symphony, you don’t come back afterwards and say, ‘I just heard four interesting pieces of music.’ You say, ‘I heard one interesting piece of music.’ In one movement you may have a Hungarian peasant dance, the next one you may have massed choirs, the next one may be all strings, and the last one may be all woodwind. But there are themes that run through which are gathered up together, and at the end it makes a satisfying unity. I don’t want readers to think of it as some kind of crossword puzzle which has a correct answer. It’s really there for the reader to make of it what he or she wants. To me it’s quite clearly a novel, but it’s not the end of the world if you enjoy it in a different way.”
Billy, speaking to the reader at the end of the second part of Faulks’s book: “I don’t think you ever understand your life—not till it’s finished and probably not then either. The more I live the less I seem to understand.”
And that is what, in the end, is so remarkable about Faulks’s not-a-novel: the more the reader reads—lives—through the book’s five lives, the harder the book becomes to understand as a novel.
Until, suddenly, the book does, as the five separate lives here coalesce, upon reflection, into one. It turns out that each character has been doing his or her part—not just war-weary Geoffrey, but Victorian Billy, followed by Elena, a scientist in the late 21st century in search of “the defining quality of human consciousness,” and even Jeanne, “the most ignorant person” in her 19th century French village, who finds herself enthralled by a mysterious monk.
But it’s Freddy, narrator of the final story, who travels farthest in service of the whole.
In the book’s final paragraphs, Freddy—who has just unspooled the story of Anya, a 1970s singer-songwriter he loved and lost—riffs: “…the past seems like something I imagined…. Sometimes my whole life seems like a dream; occasionally, I think that someone else has lived it for me. The events and the sensations, the stories and the things that make me what I am in the eyes of other people, the list of facts that make my life…They could be mine, they might be yours.”
Impossible? Head back to the cover and read Faulks’s counterclaim: five parts, but one possible life—his, the reader’s, anyone’s. It’s a reach, but a magical, immersive one, and the book’s overall effect is quite, well, novel.
Liam Callanan is the author of the novels The Cloud Atlas and All Saints. He teaches at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee and lives on the web at www.liamcallanan.com.