The most successful genetic mutation of all time has permitted the self-awareness that allows human beings to "empathise, guess, manipulate, out-think, out-fight — and, where necessary, co-operate". The irony with which Faulks places co-operation last in the list of actions brought about by human self-awareness reflects a fictional world where war and the battle for survival dominate. Geoffrey Talbot is a fine cricketer, an homme moyen sensuel who is bilingual by accident of upbringing, and becomes a British agent in occupied France. The territory is lightly but deftly covered, and the rather opaque character of Geoffrey is finely judged. However, when Geoffrey is taken prisoner, held in a concentration camp and forced to participate in Special Unit operations which include shovelling dead or not-quite-dead children into crematorium furnaces, Faulks goes beyond his capacity.

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Photograph: Sophia Evans What makes a life? What determines how and why we become the people we do, over a lifetime? What electrical impulses or conjunction of atoms create "this miracle of thought in flesh"? But it was his seventh novel, Human Traces , that explored most explicitly this relationship between thought and flesh and the historical mapping of it through the stories of two 19th-century doctors.

These same concerns are watermarked through A Possible Life, a novel that takes the form of five biographical portraits, each a self-contained novella but carrying echoes of the lives that go before and after, like the movements of a symphony.

Sometimes these connections consist of a physical object — a statue or a building — linking two characters a century apart. More often they are less tangible; ripples sent out through history by one small act of kindness, one chance meeting. The book begins in familiar Faulks territory, with the narrative of Geoffrey Talbot, a young prep school teacher who, in , finds himself volunteering for undercover operations in occupied France.

The following narratives shuttle back and forth across the 19th and 20th centuries and into our own, sharp with historical detail. After Geoffrey comes Billy, a workhouse boy whose grit lifts his children out of Victorian poverty into the prospect of a different kind of life. The central story belongs to Elena Duranti, and is the only one that projects forward from the present into an imagined near future.

A solitary child who grows up in a rural Italy decimated by economic crisis, Elena becomes a neuroscientist celebrated for discovering the elusive locus of self-awareness in the brain; proof, in other words, that there is no such thing as the "soul".

Her discovery is fictional but based closely on real case studies; Faulks is concerned with what such a discovery might mean for our collective sense of our humanity.

To varying degrees they seek connection with others, whether through sex, words, music or silence. Though their stories are necessarily compressed, Faulks makes his characters real with spare, careful details.

Avoiding excess emotion, Faulks evokes a deep compassion for all his troubled characters and, by extension, for all of us who share their condition. As Jack, the narrator of the final section, says: "The events and the sensations, the stories and the things that make me what I am in the eyes of other people, the list of facts that make my life… They could be mine, they might be yours.

It is also, ultimately, an optimistic work. We may be no more than matter but we can, in various ways, outlive our short lifespan, perhaps never knowing how far our ripples will reach.


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Every story within this novel bears the imprint of an extremely accomplished writer. Helen Dunmore, Guardian The writing is masterfully controlled, without a word wasted. Avoiding excess emotion, Faulks evokes a deep compassion for all his troubled characters and by extension, for all of us who share their condition. A Possible Life is a profound novel. It is also, ultimately an optimistic work.


A Possible Life by Sebastian Faulks – review

Shelves: best-all-time-ever , multimedia Is there such a thing as a soul? If not, what makes us so certain than the lives we lead and the identities we inhabit are even relevant? And is it possible to know which one, of all the dozens of decisions we make every day, will be the one whose significance will echo on down for generations to come? I call it a book, so that I can get on and review it - leaving the literati to bicker about whether it qualifies as a novel or not. The five separate stories have no apparent links to each other apart from their shared spine. The first story is set in and revolves around Geoffrey Talbot, a fairly underwhelming middle-class fellow who, in an unlikely series of events, finds himself behind the wire in a concentration camp in Poland. The second story maps out the life of Billy, a Dickensian sort of character raised in a poorhouse who succeeds in life through sheer force of will and entrepreneurial spirit.

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