Sebastian Faulks Examines the Meaning of Self in 'A Possible Life'

It's a shame that Sebastian Faulks' masterful new novel, A Possible Life (Henry Holt), released in mid-December, came out as late in the year as it did. Between the end-of-the-year lists and the holidays, it seems likely that the book won't get as much attention as it might otherwise. But A Possible Life was one of my favorite books of 2012 (as briefly mentioned in my end-of-the-year round-up last week), so while it's technically January 2013, I had to write about it.

A Possible Life is a series of five disparate novellas that jump back and forth in time from the 19th century to the near future. But wait, you say, isn't that just what David Mitchell did in Cloud Atlas, way back in 2004? And yes, you are right. There is more than one similarity between the two novels, although Faulks forgoes the nested chapters of Mitchell in favor of straightforward sections. However, were I to recommend but one of the two, it would be A Possible Life—and it wouldn't be a hard decision to make.

I know that may sound like heresy, as Mitchell's widely-praised book has developed more than a cult following over the years, leading to the beautiful but flawed film by the Wachowski siblings last fall. But I've read both books within the past year, and while I like and admire Cloud Atlas, I enjoyed A Possible Life even more.

Faulks' book starts with the tale of Geoffrey Talbot, an English schoolmaster in 1938. Within a few pages, Geoffrey has left his position to join the army, where he's quickly sent to France as a spy. He's arrested and shipped to a concentration camp, where he must reassess everything he thought he knew.

Then the book moves on to Billy Webb, whose family ships him off to a Dickensian poorhouse in 1859. Billy succeeds in building a life and a successful business but finds himself torn between two women. There's the tale of Elena Duranti, a neuroscientist in a recession-decimated Italy who discovers the secret to self-awareness in the middle part of this century; Jeanne, an orphaned servant in 1820s France whose religious devotion is all she has; and the American Anya King, a Joni Mitchell-esque troubadour in the 1970s, whose story is told by her producer and lover, Jack.

This sounds rather glib in its recounting, but the five tales are nothing short of mesmerizing. Faulks plays with narration and voice, although thankfully not to the extent that Cloud Atlas does (which, to me, felt almost gimmicky at some points). Yet it's his stark prose that really propels the compressed narratives along, like in this passage in which the teenage Elena finds out her father has suddenly died:

"Elena sat down in the kitchen. My father is dead. He who only a few minutes ago was living. The rest of time, she thought, starts now.

"She went out into the stony field, knelt and lowered her face between her knees. She picked up handfuls of soil and let them trickle between her fingers onto her bowed head. She had been snatched up violently and did not recognize the place where she had been put down. She lifted up her eyes to the hills, as though some help might be there; but all she sensed was how long it would take to realign herself to this new world."

It's a spare, beautiful passage that exposes the crux of what it means to grieve, and it's very matter of fact. At times, Faulks' narration seems almost journalistically dispassionate, yet there's so much emotion in these tales that it can be overwhelming.

A Possible Life is both subtle and profound. There's no obvious connection between all five pieces, although there are recurring motifs; Faulks told NPR recently that he'd like readers to think of the book as a symphony, in which distinct movements create a whole.

Still, the core of the book is the thematic repetitions throughout: What does it mean to love? What is the essence of self? Would our lives turn out the same no matter what choices we have made?

In the last section, there's somewhat of an answer to these questions—Anya sings, "‘Another life would be the same/My heart existing by different name'"—but I won't state with certainty that this is Faulks' own answer. Besides, that would take all the fun out of it. Really, you just need to read it for yourself.