What we’re reading . . .

PUBLISHED: 12:54 19 November 2013 | UPDATED: 13:25 19 November 2013

Sebastian Faulks

Sebastian Faulks


Louise Denyer dives into A Possible Life by Sebastian Faulks, author of the highly successful Birdsong

A Possible Life by Sebastian FauilksA Possible Life by Sebastian Fauilks

While every writer yearns for their novel to be a worldwide hit, it’s worth considering the cold sweats and self-doubt that must inevitably follow success. How does one live up to such an achievement and improved on it?

It’s highly likely such thoughts have occupied the mind of Sebastian Faulks following publication of his memorable Birdsong 20 years ago. It was voted thirteenth in the BBC’s Big Read survey of the nation’s most cherished books and has sold consistently well ever since.

I first read Birdsong at an impressionable time, during the summer between high school and sixth form, on the recommendation of my new A level English teacher. It opened my eyes to the horrors of the World War I, the complexities of adult relationships and the consequences of our actions. For this reason it will always have a special place on my bookshelf.

It also set the bar very high as far as Faulks was concerned. None of his more recent books have quite hit the same spot, so I picked up A Possible Life fearful of further disappointment.

The book is a novel in five parts, each focusing on different characters, settings and time periods that are thematically connected. There are also subtly recurring elements that create links between the plots. Each of the main characters has faced challenges throughout their lives and is trying to make sense of it all, to fully understand how they became the person that they are.

This is a novel about life’s crossroads, where we can take any number of directions, yet in a moment we make a single choice and must endure the consequences.

A highly emotive first chapter focuses on the war time experiences of Geoffrey Talbot and the power of cricket to evoke a sense of Englishness that enables him to escape the atrocities of the concentration camp. After this, Faulks’s writing prowess wanes a little.

The styles of this story and the second are markedly different, making it more difficult to connect with Billy Webb, the hero of The Second Sister. Both deal with similar themes – friendship, loyalty, illness, betrayal and love – but the broad narrative of the second did not invoke the necessary empathy and seemed more like a sentimental Victorian morality tale.

The futuristic fourth story hints at Wuthering Heights, although the desolate Yorkshire moors are replaced by the verdant Italian landscape. It deals with the idea of being an outsider and the isolation that such a state can bring. At its heart is the search for the essence of humanity and how our sense of self sets us apart from other animals. It continues the theme of learning and philosophy, and introduces the dimensions of class, religion and the reason for living.

The final chapter, You Next Time, redeemed the book for me. It is set in America in the 1960s and is told from the perspective of Jack Wyatt, an English musician living in the States at a time of free love, recreational drugs and self expression. This is a tale of an all-consuming obsession that somehow seems much more real. The passages are descriptive and intense and echo the loss anyone who has ever been in love has felt. The story is interspersed with song lyrics loaded with meaning and the reader is genuinely moved by the passion one person can have for another, only to have it suddenly taken away. Ultimately this novel is about the lives we lead, the ones we could have had, and how the most exciting times are when everything is possible.

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