A Possible Life

Sebastian Faulks. Holt, $25 (304p) ISBN 978-0-8050-9730-6
In this masterful book, Faulks links the stories of five disparate lives into a long meditation on the intersection of fate and free will. Five discrete novellas range from 1800s France to Italy in 2029, examining how choices, impulses, and luck (both good and bad) shape lives: into the first, Faulks packs virtually a whole novel; in 1938, Geoffrey Talbot, a undistinguished prep school teacher, confronts the reality of the Holocaust in occupied France by going undercover in a concentration camp. In the middle of the 19th century, in England, seven-year-old Billy Webb’s destitute parents ship him off to the workhouse, where in Dickensian style he grows up struggling through low-wage jobs; its blunt first-person narrator creates a vivid character in Billy. Fifteen years into the future, an accident reveals insights into “raised human consciousness,” but Italian scientist Elena Duranti is still stymied by love, lending this novella a melancholic tone. Jeanne, a once-orphaned servant “said to be the most ignorant person” in her village in 1820s rural France, watches her family unravel with a wiser eye than they suspect; the novella’s broad strokes and coy narration create a fablelike quality. The final novella, about Anya King, a singer in the Joni Mitchell mode, is narrated by her lover and collaborator, Jack, in America in the early 1970s. Stirring descriptions of the music business of that era and of Anya’s own music reveal the seductive talent that led Jack to junk his own life in favor of helping her craft her masterpiece. What Faulks (Birdsong) risks sound twee and clever, and not unlike what David Mitchell did in Cloud Atlas, but this book transcends pat tropes through the beauty and clarity of Faulks’s prose. Each world is drawn with precision, creating widely varied stories that are intensely absorbing, with language flowing and eddying to suit each one. Though there are subtle connections, characters’ lives never cross; they are alive in their own worlds. Faulks resists assembling his parts into a thumping moral; his book is both bigger and less ambitious than that, a contemplation of human existence on the individual level. Highly recommended. Agent: Gillon Aitken, Aitken Alexander Associates. (Dec.)
Reviewed on: 10/22/2012
Release date: 12/11/2012
Paperback - 287 pages - 978-1-250-03785-5
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Paperback - 304 pages - 978-0-385-67898-8
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Hardcover - 304 pages - 978-0-385-67896-4
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