A Possible Life by Sebastian Faulks

Allow me to start off with the negative for this book… and it’s rather a large one. Despite what Faulks says and how this is marketed, to me, it does not feel like a novel. It feels exactly what it appears to be and that is five short stories with a common theme – what it is to be human. At Cheltenham Literature Festival Sebastian stated that to him A Possible Life is very much a novel, that is what he intended. Despite the odd cameo and an overarching idea, the stories do not really flow together and have a more staccato feel of a short story collection. Well, four short stories and a novella.

The issue I had with this concept is that it becomes jarring as I tried to see the sense in it – I felt perhaps I couldn’t see the wood for the trees? There’s nothing wrong with Faulks’ writing, it’s as wonderful as ever. His characters in each story are all believable and each small arc entertains while it is explored. And yet, I could only walk away with a little sadness that he chose such a structure.

What Faulks does brilliantly is inject the wondering about our species and society into each situation. In one tale we see a WW2 soldier taken into a concentration camp mistakenly, rather than a POW. In order to deal with his situation he must remove himself from the ordeal using his imagination. We experience the internal horrors of such places via the work he must do for the Nazis. Faulks is using each story to work out what makes us human, what triggers our emotions. In the middle story, Faulks explores the biological and takes us into the near future to do so. Now we are delving into our brains to find what makes our emotions tick. Each story is vastly different but this one can be rather dry and clinical due to the science explored.

The final story is easily the best, and is the longest by far. It follows a British rock musician in America who discovers a beautiful young female folk singer. The story focuses on temptation and loneliness primarily. One idea that Faulks probes is the idea of solitude when surrounded by people. These musicians are forever partying, getting stoned together or jamming, but you can always see the raw sadness behind each façade. It’s in this last story that the emotion hits the reader, there are so many moments that will tug at the heart and the emptiness of each sentence surrounds the audience.

This is not Sebastians best book, by far, but as an entry to his work it is ideal. It performs well, but falls short of works like Birdsong or Charlotte Gray. I think everyone could find a story that they will love but I’m sure they’ll all walk away wishing they made more cohesive sense.

Published by Hutchinson. This book was kindly sent from the publisher.

5 thoughts on “A Possible Life by Sebastian Faulks

  1. nomadreader

    I’m reading this one now and have only the last piece to read. I read two other thematic collections billed as novels this summer (Communion Town and Accordion Crimes), and neither of them worked as a novel. Somehow A Possible Life is working that way for me thus far, but I’m curious how I’ll feel once I finish it and can assess it as a whole. It’s also my first experience with Faulks, and I am adoring his writing!

      1. nomadreader

        I definitely will. Where would you recommend I go next? For the record, the last two tales enchanted me list, so I’m somewhat ambivalent about A Possible Life. I’ll be reviewing it soon.

  2. savidgereads

    I have only read Birdsong, which I read before I went to see a special lunchtime screening of the play as my sister was an understudy and met Faulks there – random, and I really enjoyed it yet I have weirdly not, so far anyway, had the urge to go back and read any more of his books since even thought I know loads of people who think he is the bees knees.

    1. Dog Ear Post author

      He’s one of my favourite writers, but can be a little hit and miss. His favourite novel of his own creation is Human Traces (one I haven’t read) so I think I’ll be getting to that one very soon. Birdsong is still my pick, though.


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