Novels like The Years of Rice and Salt and The Incarnations use an idea that I think is relatively new in the world of fiction. In those novels, souls (or whatever you care to call them) are constantly reborn to learn something or perfect themselves. The souls are often accompanied by other souls down through the centuries. When I read the description of A Possible Life: A Novel in Five Parts, by Sebastian Faulks, I was expecting something similar. That’s not what I got, exactly. There are hints that the five narrators are connected (sometimes they share memories), this is not a novel about reincarnation. I’m still not sure what this book is about.
A Possible Life is a novel that breaks one of the cardinal rules of fiction. Even if you’re not a writer, you’ve probably heard of “show, don’t tell.” A Possible Life is all tell. In each section, we get a small biography of a character. We’re left to figure out how five people in four countries in three different centuries are connected to each other.
The first biography is of Geoffrey Talbot, a British schoolteacher who abruptly runs out of luck in France in 1943. Talbot started off as a hapless officer before parlaying his ability to speak French and keep secrets into a career in espionage. In 1943, he is captured and sent to an unnamed concentration camp. He barely escapes. Physically, he escapes. Mentally, Talbot is even more of a hermit than he was before the war. Of the five characters, Talbot is the most self-isolating.
Faulks then whisks us back to Victorian England. Billy Webb was the unlucky sibling who went to the workhouse when their parents could no longer afford to feed all of them. In his teens, Webb gets out of the workhouse and slowly claws his way up from day labor to sign hanger to landlord. He finds love. He builds a family. His life turns out to be a good one.
The next capsule biography takes us into the near future. Elena Duranti is another person who stays away from people. Unlike Talbot, she does not drift through life and let relationships slide through her fingers. She pushes them away so that she can learn as much as possible. She resents her parents when they adopt a boy they dub Bruno, but the two eventually grow so close that they understand each other like no one else. Duranti advances at university, eventually discovering the mechanism in the brain that makes it possible for humans to think about their thinking—something that sets us apart from other species. This section bothered me because the tone of the chapter implied that all of Duranti’s intellectual achievements won’t make up for not having a family, children.
The penultimate chapter is the shortest and the strangest. Jeanne, called Mole by the children she helped raise, is a woman who doesn’t have a past. She works for a local bourgeoisie with pretentions to be a philosopher. No one falls in love with her. Her children are borrowed from a neurotic woman and eventually grow away from her. No one knows where she came from. We learn a little bit about her life before she became a maid-of-all-work and nanny around 1822 in the French countryside. She was a laundress before her religious convictions turned out to be placed in the wrong monk. At least, I think that’s what happened.
The last chapter is narrated by Jack, a former rockstar bidding his time between gigs, but is named for the woman Jack falls in love with. Anya King is a singer-songwriter who can make magic with her songs. She’s hypnotic and Jack is completely gone after meeting her. We see Anya’s career take off and their relationship change from mentor-mentee to manager-artist to lovers in a short time. When Anya leaves, Jack is devastated. He never really gets over her.
Every time I tried to find the connection between the five characters, some fact from the stories would through it out. Four out of five of the characters have dysfunctional relationships. Billy Webb has two wives (not concurrently, exactly) and they have very loving relationships. Three of the five characters overlap chronologically, so my reincarnation theory is out the window. As I wrote yesterday, I’m not at all sure what this book is trying to tell me. I think I need to ruminate on it some more.
If anyone knows of an author interview where Faulks explains A Possible Life, DO NOT SEND IT TO ME. Reading an interview to get the author’s intention is cheating.