I have read two of Sebastian Faulks’ previous novels: Birdsong (which I thought was truly excellent), and Engleby (which I thought was so-so). Anyway, my good lady wife was given a nice edition of his latest work, A Possible Life last year, and after reading it, recommended it to me.

A Possible Life by Sebastian Faulks

My review of this book (and I chose that word carefully) is going to be somewhat mixed. Whilst there is indeed much to praise here, there is one aspect that I just don’t think works too well. What’s that, I hear you cry? Well, it’s the thing revealed in the sub-title on the very first page: A Possible Life: A Novel in Five Parts.

Now, a novel I can deal with. In fact, this blog is testament to the fact that I am a great lover of good novels.

Then there are short story collections. These too, I happily read and often love. (In fact, I am going to tackle a short story collection next.)

There are even novels containing different parts, narrated by entirely different characters, which perhaps just have a common thread linking them together. For example, the very impressive Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell is a book containing six seemingly separate stories, yet there is a strong enough connection between the tales for them to absolutely belong together as part of one cohesive whole.

Now, I suspect that it is this latter category that Sebastian Faulks was aiming at, with the intent being that each of the five stories in some way depicts what it is to be human and perhaps how each given individual has moments of connection with others. (The short blurb on the back cover certainly seems to suggest that this is the intended theme: “Every atom link us / Every feeling binds us / Every thought connects us”). However, even if this was the intent, to my mind there was only the very loosest, most vague of connections, painted in the very lightest of strokes. Which is really another way of me saying that I was not convinced of there being any significant connection at all.

So, whilst I did enjoy reading this (and more of the positives in a moment), I struggle to think of it as “a novel” at all.

Okay, so what was good about the book?

Well, as I mentioned earlier, structure aside, there is much to praise here.

All five of the individual stories are compelling, indeed, very compelling, and each is convincing, and well written.

It was the two longest parts – the first (A Different Man) and the last (You Next Time) that I enjoyed most.

A Different Man tells the tale of Geoffrey Talbot, a mild-mannered teacher and cricket fan, who joins the army during the Second World War, and ends up being sent to a Nazi concentration camp, where he is made to serve the killers. The story then proceeds to show the impact of this horrific experience on Geoffrey’s life, as he returns to England and tries to live out the rest of his days.

You Next Time recalls the wild days that a young musician spent out in America during the seventies with his fellow musician, girlfriend, and eventual star, Anya King. Faulks does a brilliant job of evoking the time and place, and the choice of narrative approach (with the tale being told from a vantage point thirty years later) works superbly.

Truth be told, in both cases, having been totally gripped for over eighty pages, I was very sad when they came to an end. I really wished that Faulks had turned each of these into a full-scale novel in its own right, as they were both excellent pieces.

So, my verdict: There are some great narratives here, and the writing is consistently good, so I absolutely would recommend this book. Just don’t imagine that you are picking up a novel.

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