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Oxfam Book Review: "A Possible Life" by Sebastian Faulks

Sebastian FaulkesThis month marks the first anniversary of the Book Group at the Oxfam Bookshop, Muswell Hill. During our first year we have read and discussed novels from all over the world, some written in English and some translated from their original language; contemporary novels, a murder mystery, a fantasy/horror story and a couple of classics.   We don’t all make it to every meeting but the group is now large enough that a good discussion is guaranteed at each meeting.

For our February meeting we read A Possible Life by Sebastian Faulks. The novel is described on the title page as ‘a novel in five parts’.  This description was the first point of discussion – were the parts related, could it really be described as a novel? Some were of the opinion that the individual parts read more like summary plans for potential individual novels, but there was a strong case made that the stories were all linked by a theme of social mobility and were, as such, part of a cohesive whole.  We agreed that in most of the stories the main characters were striving to improve their situation and that this could be interpreted as a determination to survive harsh circumstances. Some of the stories are told in the first person, others in the third, all have a sense of lives being assessed, of apartness and introversion, even self-absorption.

The stories follow the lives of Jeanne, an unquestioning woman who works as a servant to a family in France in the early in the nineteenth century; Billy Webb, a Victorian workhouse boy who improves the lot of his family and himself; Geoffrey Talbot, a mild man who becomes an SOE operative in the Second World War and finishes his days as a school master; Jack, a recording entrepreneur in Los Angeles in the mid 20th century and Elena Duranti, a neuro-scientist in Italy in the mid 21st century.

Sebastian Faulks has described the novel as similar to a symphony or a concept album where themes and motifs are more important than a connecting plot and, to a certain extent, we agreed. The idea that the themes and motifs are what bind the stories into a whole generated a lot of discussion.  Some are easy to spot, like the reference to Geoffrey’s ‘rearrangement of particles’, Elena’s futuristic-scientific discovery of the area of the brain responsible for sentience and personal awareness or when Jack declines a flat in a converted workhouse – the one where Billy grew up.  There was a feeling that the way these motifs were blended into the stories would have been improved by them forming a more significant element in the structure of the story.

Those who were in tune with the underlying theme of this novel loved it, but there was a general view that the major theme of the book was not conveyed adequately.  The clue to what Faulks is attempting to create in A Possible Life was discovered in an interview he gave in 2012 in which he suggested all is made clear on page 359 of one of his his previous novels, Human Traces.  Why don’t you have a read and see what you think?

Please see the Groups, Clubs & Associations listing for more details about the Book Review Club.


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