Sebastian Faulks's novel conundrum
It’s a book that deals with quite mysterious and difficult subjects; and it also leaves room for the reader to work things out, writes ARMINTA WALLACE
SEBASTIAN FAULKS’S new novel will surprise – possibly even shock – his legion of fans. The opening pages of A Possible Life introduce Geoffrey Talbot, a teacher of small boys at a school in the English countryside.
When Geoffrey signs up for the second World War and finds himself recruited as a secret-service operative, it appears that Faulks has returned to the familiar territory of his bestselling war trilogy Birdsong, Charlotte Gray and The Girl at the Lion d’Or. But then things get a little strange. Geoffrey’s story ends on page 83; and on the next page, there begins a totally new story. There are four such gear-changes in the book, resulting in five discrete sections. A boy is sent by his penniless father to a Victorian workhouse. In the year 2069, an Italian neuroscientist solves the mystery of consciousness. A maidservant looks after two children in a sleepy French village. A skinny female singer-songwriter becomes a sensation in 1970s California.
We’re not talking about a series of linked short stories here. A Possible Life is unquestionably a novel. As the pages turn the reader spots links and connections, hints and allegations that invoke such mystical-philosophical topics as identity, compassion and even life after death. So what’s it all about, Mr Faulks? How would he describe what has been called an “enigmatic” book?
“Well, it’s not a book that rams a message down your throat, or grabs you by the lapels and says ‘This is what it’s about,’” he says. “I mean, it’s a book that deals with quite mysterious and difficult subjects; and it also leaves room for the reader to work things out for themselves. It’s quite a quiet book, too – unlike the last book I wrote, A Week in December, which was angry and violent and did grab you by the lapels and say ‘You’ve got to understand this and this.’”
With A Possible Life, Faulks pursues the fascination with human self-awareness which drives his novels Human Traces and Engleby. “What is the human creature, and why is it so very, very weird?” he muses. “If natural selection and Darwinian evolution can explain everything so well, what was this unnecessary mutation that made us so different? A pure biologist might argue that the important speciating change was something to do with the larynx, or the voicebox, or memory or something – but what it has given rise to is this self-awareness which is so perplexing. And so burdensome, really.”