Entertainment Books

Thursday 21 November 2019

Review: Fiction: A Possible Life by Sebastian Faulks

Hutchison, €13.99, tpbk, 352 pages
Available with free P&P on www.kennys.ie or by calling 091 709350

You often hear writers talk about the trauma that hits them when their first book comes out. What will the reviews say? What will sales be like? And then: what the hell will I write about now?

They call it second-book syndrome: the anti-climactic second novel that so often follows a dazzling debut.

Sebastian Faulks was hit by a strange variation of this phenomenon. Birdsong (1993) was in fact his fourth novel, but many readers thought it was his first.

They expected his subsequent efforts to reach the heights of Birdsong, and many felt disappointed by books such as Engleby (2007) and A Week in December (2009).

Faulks had also won a reputation for writing about France in the early years of the 20th Century. The Girl at the Lion D'Or, Charlotte Gray and Birdsong had all explored this territory in one way or another.

When, for instance, he decided to tackle the banking crisis and the state of modern Britain in A Week in December, he left many fans of his early work behind.

There was also a sense that Faulks's early training as a journalist was not helping his literary writing. Some of his later works were more perspiration than inspiration.

A Possible Life, his 13th novel (he has published one every two or three years since 1984), is a very welcome return to form, although readers may dispute whether it is a novel at all.

The book comprises five separate novellas, each beautifully and skilfully written, each telling the story of a different life, and adding up, I suppose, to an exploration on the what-might-have-been nature of human existence.

The first story concerns an English public schoolboy who volunteers as a spy during World War Two, is captured and sent to a Nazi death camp.

The passages dealing with camp life are compelling, but it is the description of the emotional damage inflicted by these experiences that is the story's greatest success.

A story about a Victorian street boy who is raised in a workhouse and works his way up in the world is movingly and sparingly told.

Sometimes Faulks's writing reminds me of William Boyd (the WWII story), sometimes of Jay McInerney (the last story, about a Joni Mitchell-type singer-songwriter).

And yet at other times, it takes on the quality of a fable, as in the third story, set in the near future, about a loner scientist who goes looking for the physical location of the human soul.

Some stories are told in the third person; some in the first. Some are set in the past, and some in the future. But in each case, the writing is sure and unshowy, and Faulks succeeds in showing us that the life we end up with is just one of many possible lives.

Whether A Possible Life is a novel is a question for literary pedants (or Booker judges).

Readers should simply be pleased at getting five wonderful stories for the price of one.

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