The day after I finished Sebastian Faulks’s astonishing new novel I sat down to a few episodes of Mad Men. In one of his many moments of boozy insight, Don Draper offers this pearl of advertising wisdom to his protégé Peggy Olson:
‘You are the product. You feeling something. That’s what sells.’
This quote momentarily shattered my nostalgia-fuelled swoonfest as I realised that this is exactly how I feel about Faulks’s writing. It is so popular because it stokes our emotions to such an extent that we become embroiled in the drama of his characters; we become hyper-receptive to the message that he sends; and we want more of it. And I want more of A Possible Life. So much more. I cannot recall ever being so emotionally invested in a novel and that is such an exhilarating experience.
A Possible Life has a unique structure, which serves its purpose very well. The book could possibly be thought of as 5 short stories on a similar theme, however it is probably more apt to consider the theme as the main character, and the 5 stories as examples of this particular theme in action. (Faulks himself refers to the structure as ‘symphony’- distinct movements that contribute to the whole). The novel starts out with Geoffrey, a young English schoolteacher who becomes trapped in some of the most harrowing experiences of the Second World War. We then meet a nineteenth-century British lad with a Dickensian childhood; an Italian neuroscientist from several decades in the future; a maid in Napoleonic France and, finally, a Joni Mitchell-esque music star in the early 1970s.
Although these scenarios may appear to have little in common, they are all ruminations on the directions that our lives take and the experiences that make us who we are. Some form of hardship, loss or tragedy affects each character to a significant degree. However it is their resolve to move on and create new possibilities for themselves – the ‘possible life’ of the title – that gives the novel its thematic punch. Faulks is perhaps at his most brilliant when he writes the more life-affirming segments; they never seem glib or cheesy, but rather recognise the complex layering of experience that forms the basis of the characters’ identities and lives.
And this is why A Possible Life struck such a chord with me. Ultimately we all live with regret, with loss and with heartache, but it is our ability to be affected by these experiences and to move on from them simultaneously which shapes our lives. Sebastian Faulks has an astonishing ability to capture these feelings and mirror them back so that even though you are, on the surface, reading about the fortunes of a 1970s folk star, as you delve a little deeper more your own feelings and memories become intertwined with the characters on the page. It is this personal connection that brings me back to Draper’s quote; the product is not the book itself, but rather your experience of it.
Review by Catherine Horne