A Possible Life is not your average novel. Rather than being one long story, it is separated into five parts, each telling the story of a character over their lifetime. The stories and their characters are very different, ranging from a peasant in 19th-century France to an ambitious near-future neuroscientist, but each tells a fascinating tale of the changes that take place over a lifetime and the forces that shape who we become.
The five parts of A Possible Life can be read as stand-alone short stories, but they are better appreciated when read as a whole. There are hints of a connection between the stories – such as a lawyer called Cheeseman who appears briefly in both the first and fifth stories – but the real bond lies in their deeper themes and accounts of the human condition. Indeed, although the stories are excellently crafted, the most important and lasting impression is the commentary on existence that the book as a whole provides.
It’s refreshing to find a book with a different structure to the usual single linear narrative. While it is widely acknowledged within the publishing world that short stories tend to be unpopular with readers, even short-story sceptics could probably be persuaded by A Possible Life – or would at least have to appreciate the way in which this structure provides an interesting and effective way of communicating the book’s themes. The pace of each story leaves no room for ornate descriptive passages, preventing thematic comments from being lost beneath the noise of excessive description, and allowing them to have a more powerful effect on the reader. The fact that all five characters are seemingly so different, and yet share so many emotions, helps emphasise the statements about the universal nature of the human condition in a way that would be difficult or impossible for a novel with a traditional narrative structure to achieve.
One of the most important themes throughout the book is the importance of the past and its effects on consciousness and character. Our memories and experiences are what make us who we are, and the book’s characters find themselves affected by their early experiences throughout their lives. A Possible Life is emotionally moving without being sentimental or melodramatic, and the characters are realistic – they are flawed but not unlikeable. They are all troubled, usually as a result of their experiences, and the tone of the narrative doesn’t moralise; it simply observes the characters’ actions and development throughout their lives. This book deals with big subjects – the human condition, the soul and the nature of existence. The fact that Faulks addresses these themes without being pretentious or self-indulgent is testament to his skill as a writer.
The description on the cover promises the opportunity ‘to feel your heart beat in someone else’s life’, and the book does exactly that. It offers insight into the lives of five completely different characters, spanning countries and centuries, together with the realisation that despite all these apparent divides, the human condition really is universal.
Emma Lock, Books Team