A POSSIBLE LIFE by Sebastian Faulks


I have to admit I found this book puzzling. I almost gave up after the first few pages but I’m glad I persisted, if only in an attempt to discover what Faulks is getting at. The book begins with the story of a young man who is recruited into SOE as a secret agent, is betrayed and finds himself in a Nazi extermination camp – events which Faulks himself covered so dramatically in ‘Charlotte Grey’. But here they are narrated in the flat, unemotional style of a police report and framed as just one of a series of occurrences in an unremarkable life. The narrative then jumps to the life of a poor working class boy in London at the end of the nineteenth century; then forward to a futuristic tale of scientific research in the late 21st century; back to a remote village in pre-revolutionary France and then to the rock and folk music scene of 1970s America. All these stories I found much more engaging than the first one, which seemed designed to keep the reader at a distance; but do they add up to something more than the parts? As far as I can make out, Faulks’s thesis is that the individual life is an illusion. We are all made up from the atoms and elements which constituted other people’s bodies in earlier times and the sense of the unique personal self is purely an biological accident of evolution. This is an interesting philosophical proposition, but in my opinion it is not enough to turn what is in essence a series of short novellas into a coherent whole.