A Possible Life by Sebastian Faulks
My rating: 6/10
One Sentence Verdict: Profound and vivid portrayals of five different people’s stories, seems a little fragmented but evokes sincere feeling in the reader
Unpopular opinion: I didn’t like Birdsong. No, I haven’t seen the film. Perhaps I’d prefer it to the book. I read Birdsong, by the same author, last summer, and I have to say that I didn’t find it interesting at all. I thought the romance was a bit half-baked, and I wasn’t rooting for anyone. The main characters annoyed me. So I don’t know what the fuss was about. The book was immensely popular, so maybe it’s just my bad taste.
This shorter book by Faulks, a collection of five shorter stories which follow the lives of people so different that there can be no link between them other than the fact they are human, and flawed, was much more enjoyable a read. However, I found that the length of the stories meant that they fell short of being truly satisfying narratives, but there can be no denying that the work as a whole is evocative and thought-provoking. These glimpses into the lives of people who are so different, means that the reader gains more than they would from just sticking to one genre or time period, as many of us are wont to do.
The first of the five stories, A Different Man, is about a young British teacher who goes to serve as an officer in the Second World War, and becomes interned in a concentration camp, before miraculously making it back home, though irreversibly changed by his harrowing ordeal. Placed in the Sonderkommando, burning the bodies of the prisoners murdered in the gas chambers, the young man eventually manages to escape and returns to England, and to his teaching job, a different man to when he left.
The next tale, named The Second Sister, follows the life of a boy sent to a Victorian workhouse when his family cannot afford to feed all their children. As an adult, he marries a girl he knew in the workhouse, but when she is detained in a mental asylum, begins a life with her sister. Their lives are turned upside down when his wife returns from the asylum, her illness having receded.
The third story, Everything Can Be Explained, is about a young Italian girl whose father brings home an orphaned boy to live with them. She comes to love him, despite hating the intruder at first. When her father dies, a lack of money means he is sent away, but they eventually meet again, though not necessarily in the happiest of circumstances.
The penultimate story, A Door Into Heaven, is about a French woman, Jeanne, an ignorant village-girl who becomes employed as a nurse and housekeeper by a wealthy family. She knows very little or literature or any culture other than her own, despite the attempts of others to teach her, and attempts to find answers with a priest when working in the laundry of a monastery before the employment with the family. She remained with the children she’d nursed until her death as an elderly woman.
You Next Time is the last, and the longest, of the five stories. It is about a young man, Jack, who meets a talented but as yet undiscovered singer and guitarist, Anya King, and falls in love with her, moving around the world as her career, and their relationship, develops. She has an unpredictable nature and a free spirit, and although extraordinarily talented, Anya has little in the way of direction or ability to commit. Jack, or Freddy, as she calls him, helps her climb the ladder to success, but it doesn’t come without a price.
Whilst as previously mentioned, all these stories are wildly different, the characters are brilliantly drawn and capture the attention of the reader. I found the last story to be especially captivating, the others perhaps a little less so, a bit too slow for me to really enjoy them. The first story, of the British prisoner-of-war, was also very profound and realistic.
On a side note, the cover pictures are quite beautiful, with the front showing the soldier from the first story retreating from our view along a dirt track across a field where a single tree stands on the horizon, and the back showing Anya with her guitar walking towards the reader along the same path. I’d recommend this book over Birdsong any day; although quite fragmented, each of the stories had its charm, and I’d love to see more writing like this from the same author.