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BOOK REVIEW

His craft becomes clearer as time goes by

December 23, 2012|Louis Bayard | Bayard is a novelist and reviewer whose most recent book is "The School of Night."

A Possible Life

A Novel in Five Parts

Sebastian Faulks

Henry Holt: 304 pp. $25

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In the wake of bestselling, highly praised historical tales such as "Birdsong" and "Charlotte Gray," Sebastian Faulks has been hailed as one of those authors who straddles art and commerce -- which may be another way of saying he belongs to neither camp entirely. We should not be surprised, then, that his latest book, "A Possible Life," gravitates between poles of its own.

At first blush, it is a collection of five longish short stories, self-containable, not obviously related, ranging in era from early 19th century France to futuristic Italy. Faulks, however, insists the book is "a novel in five parts" and has compared it to a Beethoven symphony with separate movements arching into "a satisfying unity."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, December 26, 2012 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 45 words Type of Material: Correction
"A Possible Life": In the Dec. 23 Arts & Books section, a review of the book "A Possible Life" by Sebastian Faulks referred to a character ending up in a Polish concentration camp. It should have said it was a Nazi concentration camp in Poland.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, December 30, 2012 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part D Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
"A Possible Life": A Dec. 23 review of the book "A Possible Life" by Sebastian Faulks referred to a character ending up in a Polish concentration camp. It should have said it was a Nazi concentration camp in Poland.

So if we take Faulks at his word (and if we ignore our misgivings about taking any author at his word), how do we make this Beethoven roll over? One solution is to sift through the book like a doctoral candidate, teasing out every connective thread.

We might note, for instance, such recurrent motifs as the plaster Madonna and the Victorian workhouse, which is transformed from a crucible of suffering in one story to a high-end housing development in another. We might nod and smile when a 19th century French physician predicts that humanity will one day "understand how the mind works" because we know that, in another story, a 21st century Italian scientist will do just that (and find herself no happier for understanding).

If we really roll up our sleeves, we could spend days parsing the book's final sentence -- "I think we're all in this thing, like it not, for ever" -- and sort out the links between the monastery and the cricket lawn, wondering after a while if we haven't turned the whole exercise into a middlebrow "Cloud Atlas."

On balance, I think it's better to read "A Possible Life" as it comes to us: a gallery of fictional portraits. Five people, unknown to each other, going about the business of living. That way, at least, we can finally appreciate Faulks' craft, which as always is subservient to his story. It's true, he doesn't have the linguistic fury of a David Mitchell, but look how skillfully and plainly he sets out the saga of a London waif: "My father made us all sit round the table. 'Children,' he says, 'one of you is going to have to go into the Union house. They've offered me that -- to take one of you off my hands.' "

Here's how another story starts: "It was a hot evening in July, and I was sitting on the porch in a chair made from an old car seat. I had a six-string acoustic on my lap and was running my fingers up and down the fretboard, gazing into the distance. There was a can of beer open on the deck.... Lowri was inside the farmhouse, and through the closed insect door I could hear her singing. Janis and Grace, the dogs, were rooting around in the yard." Even if Faulks hadn't tipped us off to the year -- 1971 -- we would already be in situ, ready to follow a Joni Mitchell-ish folk prodigy as far as she'll take us.

The book's most harrowing story has the most deceptively calm beginning of all: "Geoffrey Talbot was supposed to be a linguist, but spent most of his time at university playing games. He appeared twice for the first eleven at cricket, but was not selected for the match at Lord's when his place was taken by 'Tiny' Trembath, a slab of a man already on Lancashire's books." An American reader might reel at these sports arcana, but Trembath will come back a few pages later -- proving unforgettable by story's end -- and the theme of "playing games" will prove central to our callow young hero's progress.

For Talbot volunteers, on a lark, to work with the French Resistance. Betrayed, he ends up in a Polish concentration camp, where he survives by taking on such jobs as feeding the crematorium fire: "The intensity of labor was so great that when they stopped for half an hour at midday their places were immediately taken by others on rotation. There were no ablutions, and the men, many of whom had typhus, used the tin dinner plate for two purposes, chucking the waste into the flames as best they could. Those who collapsed or rebelled at what they did were thrown straight into the furnace."

The story circles back to a boys' preparatory school in Nottingham and manages to suggest with minimal fuss how, in the wake of the Holocaust, "playing games" is both futile and necessary.

As with any collection, some of Faulks' stories leave a larger imprint than others. (The Italian scientist's discoveries founder on a plot contrivance that might have been dragged from the Brontes' attic.) But the chief pleasure in reading "A Possible Life" comes from feeling you can wander off with any of its characters, no matter how subsidiary, and find a story every bit as real and compelling as what's on the page. This might just be the "satisfying unity" Faulks was shooting for the whole time.

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