Throughout his career, English writer Sebastian Faulks has proven to be consistently adept at tracing the choppy life-trajectories of extraordinary characters. His masterpiece, "Birdsong," shadowed a man who survives the carnage of World War I. Engleby followed its eponymous character from sanity to mental instability. "A Fool's Alphabet" took more risks by cutting up the key incidents in the protagonist's life and shuffling them. Now, with "A Possible Life," Faulks goes further by presenting stand-alone biographies of five characters from different walks of life -- even different eras -- and only tenuously connecting them. It is a gamble, but one he pulls off superbly.
The first and best story concerns Geoffrey, a schoolteacher, who once war breaks out is enlisted by a covert British organization to sabotage German operations in occupied France. When he is caught and sent to a concentration camp in the east, miles from "democracy and the RAF," he tries to blot out the daily horrors with thoughts of the bucolic English life he left behind. We then switch to Billy, who begins life in a Victorian workhouse and gradually climbs the ladder to respectability. Elena's tale takes place in Italy in 2029, where, despite a harsh economic downturn, she is able to forge a dynamic scientific career mapping human consciousness. Jeanne's strand takes us back to 19th-century France and chronicles a poor servant on the road to enlightenment. The novel ends with a novella, a bravura account of 1970s American singer/songwriter Anya, whose voice melts men's hearts but whose struggle to keep pure her musical integrity necessitates drastic actions.
It's the inventive variety of these tales that impresses, and which puts us in mind of Faulks' younger compatriots, David Mitchell and Hari Kunzru, who also favor hotchpotch histories that interlock or rebound off one another. Faulks' book is subtitled "A Novel in Five Parts," and while a close reading yields slight connections (Elena muses on a monastery in France, a cabin in California and a house in England with smooth lawns, all of which are settings in the novel's other sections) we reap just as many rewards treating it as a quintet of separate stories linked by life -- the arc of it, the joys and iniquities within, even an attempt to fathom it.
"Sometimes my whole life seems like a dream," confesses Anya's lover. "Occasionally I think that someone else has lived it for me." This tallies with Elena's scientific thesis that human life is matter that ultimately "falls apart and is infinitely re-used." As with the best of Faulks' fiction, "A Possible Life" blends profound ideas with compelling prose, and however we choose to categorize it, the result is far more than the sum of its parts.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast.