A Possible Life by Sebastian Faulks – review

Helen Dunmore finds Sebastian Faulks exercising his talents on the treadmill of time

The premise of A Possible Life is existential rather than narrative. 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 physical site of this mutation is discovered in the third of the novel's connected stories, "Everything Can Be Explained", by a pair of young women scientists who discover that loop within the brain where the sense of selfhood is "retuned, refined and enriched" by memory. This story is set in the near future; other sections of the novel look back to the second world war, to a boy struggling for survival in a Victorian workhouse, to a French peasant girl's deception in the early 19th century, and to the 1970s, where a brilliant young woman singer/songwriter makes her first recordings.

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. In the first section, "A Different Man", Faulks returns to material he explored in Charlotte Gray, seasoning it with a dash of black humour reminiscent of Waugh's Sword of Honour trilogy. 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. In Charlotte Grey, his judgment was true: the little French children, André and Jacob, are fully known in their journey from family security to extermination. The novel takes them to the black mouth of Auschwitz, to disappear over its threshold with a finality that is the more memorable because Faulks understands exactly how far he can accompany these children.

Every story within this novel bears the imprint of an extremely accomplished writer. In a sense Faulks is profligate with his own talent, and sometimes seems to put too little value on what this talent can do with idiosyncratic ease, and too much on what does not lie within its range. The workhouse child Billy in "The Second Sister" has a voice so compelling, self-deceiving and deeply human that most novelists would have been happy to build a whole novel around him. Faulks, however, wants something different. Billy must step back into the shadows, while the novel uses him for illustrative and thematic purposes.

Faulks is fascinated by communal memory, and the ways in which the dissolving grains of an individual life may carry its purposes into other lives. The midden and chained dog past which Geoffrey Talbot wheels his bicycle into the French farmhouse where he will be betrayed to the Gestapo are the same midden, dog and farmhouse that betrayed the peasant girl Jeanne over 100 years earlier. The record producer and musician who tells the story of his love for the Joan Baez-like Anya King will later consider buying a flat in a former Victorian workhouse. Although it is now "full of saunas and fitness rooms", Billy Webb once picked oakum there, and slept in a hole in the floor.

The cells of the past, recyled, reused, never quite destroyed, are real rather than haunting presences throughout A Possible Life. If matter does not disappear, then the matter that made Billy Webb is always present somewhere, exerting its influence. The cessation of an event does not bring about its ending, if it continues to throb and relive itself through memory. The whole novel is an indictment of the cod psychology that advises human beings to "move on", shucking off their pasts as if these were a skin rather than an impregnation of the entire being. And what is true of the individual may also be true of a culture and nation, which cannot reinvent themselves without taking account of the fabric from which they are made.

Not to remember, of course, is to risk the demon of repetition. Many of the repetitions within A Possible Life are grim, but there are rare, benign presences that light up the path from one generation of betrayal to the next. In one fine scene, Geoffrey Talbot, no longer able to function under the burden of memory, is visited by a former pupil whom he once coached in cricket. The visit is everyday, even banal, but richly humane. The young man, Ched, realises that Geoffrey would like to be able to watch test cricket, and a week later, a small portable TV with a built-in aerial and earphones arrives at the asylum. Ched's detailed thoughtfulness, without attachment or expectation, is the beginning of Geoffrey's recovery. In A Possible Life, such moments of grace are the only relief from the treadmill of time.

• Helen Dunmore's The Greatcoat is published by Hammer.


Helen Dunmore

The GuardianTramp

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