Had Sebastian Faulk not decided to call the five stories that make up A Possible Life a novel, certainly the conversation about the book might have been quite different. Readers who might have been content dealing with each of the tales, some novella length, some more like short stories, individually, find themselves looking for the ties that bind, looking and more often than not failing to find.
Faulk then, in defining the book’s genre, has made his own bed, and all the moaning and complaining about truth in advertising and false labeling are his sheets and pillow cases. It is almost impossible to talk about the book without dealing with the question of genre, either to defend or deny. At best a thankless task: search long enough and deep, and you will find connections, or at least, with enough ingenuity on your part, create them where they don’t exist. Unfortunately, nothing you find or concoct, will satisfy the moans and complaints of those who feel they’ve been sold a bill of goods.
That said, let’s plunge ahead.
A Possible Life consists of five separate stories. They are set in three different centuries in four different countries. Characters are unrelated in any obvious way. Narrative point of view varies from the first person to the omniscient author. They are not arranged in chronological order. Each is given the name of the central character.
The book begins with “Geoffrey.” Set in England in 1938, it is the story of the life of a man who meets and loses the love of his life in France during World War II. This is followed by “Billy,” set in England in 1859. It deals with a poor young boy’s rise up from the workhouse and the women he loves. “Elena” takes place in Italy in 2029, and tells the story of a scientist’s work on what it means to be human played out against her impossible love affair. “Jeanne” is the story of a simple serving girl in France in 1822 and her own impossible romantic attachment. It ends with “Anya,” set in America in 1971, and deals with a singer/songwriter who uses her life experience and her loves as grist for her art, as told by one of her lovers.
Taken individually, each of the stories makes for a good read, some better than others, but all good. Given Faulk’s mandate, however, it seems the book shouldn’t be evaluated in terms of its parts. It must needs be judged as a whole.
Other than the obvious fact that all the stories deal in some way with failed loves, what is it that makes the book a novel? There are some repeated images in some of the stories: a plaster figure of the Madonna, a cricket pitch, the workhouse, even a minor character who is mentioned in two of the different stories. While none of these might seem all that significant, and indeed many but the most attentive of readers are unlikely to notice them, still they begin to suggest something about what Faulks has in mind in terms of what it all means.
In the central story Elena’s discovery is the knowledge that “one was comprised of recycled matter and that selfhood was a delusion.” And then as the narrator of “Anya” concludes at the end of the book: “The events and the sensations, the stories and the things that make me what I am in the eyes of other people, the list of facts that make my life. . . They could be mine, they might be yours.” He is like “an actor playing a part” he’s “never mastered.” In a kind of reincarnation, Geoffrey, Billy, Elena, Jeanne, narrator of Anya’s story, if not Anya herself, are recycled matter, doomed to be continually recycled — possible lives, doomed to keep on living new possible lives. Anya’s narrator again: “I think we’re all in this thing, like it or not, forever.”
So then, is A Possible Life a novel? If you define the genre in terms of thematic unity, and if you buy the above or come up with your own more satisfactory thematic explication, the answer is a resounding yes. If you have a definition of the genre that focuses on plot or character, or even narrative point of view, your answer is probably no. Nevertheless, if you enjoyed the five finely wrought stories for what they are, you might just as well answer, who cares?