19th century rural french dairy barn (istockphoto)

I’m not sure why Sebastian Faulks calls his new book “a novel” — I might as well call this review “a poem” — but labeling is the only thing he gets wrong here. The five disparate stories in “A Possible Life” jump around from 1822 to 2029, exploring worlds as unrelated as a German concentration camp and an L.A. music studio. Although there are subtle connections and thematic echoes among them, what’s most remarkable is how distinctively moving each of these pieces is.

Such versatility doesn’t come as a surprise. Over the past 30 years, this talented British author has written short biographies, novels set across the 20th century, a novel that works through the alphabet, another that focuses on a single dinner party, and even a James Bond knock-off to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Ian Fleming’s birth. But this is his first foray into short fiction, which makes “A Possible Life” a satisfying demonstration of his range.

These stories sneak up on you, gently ingratiate themselves, get you settled in comfortably and then batter your heart. None more so than the first, “Geoffrey,” a novella about an athletic young man who strolls through university, lands a job at a prep school and then finds himself in officers training during World War II. He’s more prepared for cricket than battle, and the scenes of him and his men wandering around the English countryside lull us with light comedy until one of the soldiers drowns near a golf course. “I suppose there’ll be a dreadful stink about this,” Geoffrey says.

That quip curdles as Geoffrey ventures into Occupied France and then finds himself in a Nazi death camp, which he experiences with the kind of innocence and confusion that history has burned from our minds. But no matter how much you may think you’re inured to these horrors, Faulks will shock you. Here are fresh cruelties in a place where the bureaucracy of genocide assembled an efficient staff of psychopaths and sadists. This is easy material to get wrong, to overplay, to exploit as Holocaust porn, but Faulks writes in a calm, measured voice that’s mesmerizing in its authenticity. As the story moves beyond the war, it becomes no less gripping, even as it grows stiller, a pensive reflection on the cost of surviving, of witnessing. It’s an extraordinary work — full of melancholy and “a touch of unsought grace” that comes to a decent man thrown into the most obscene few acres on Earth during the 20th century.

The other four stories turn this theme in different directions, depicting ordinary people who are buffeted about by circumstances and realize the impact of their choices only long after the time for choosing has passed. If there’s any common element among these stories, it’s their focus on thoughtful men and women orphaned in one way or another. Cut off prematurely from their families, Faulks’s protagonists have a heightened sense of just how easily they might have led very different lives.

"A Possible Life: A Novel in Five Parts by Sebastian Faulks (Henry Holt)

“Billy” is a well-made tale about a Victorian lad who claws his way up from the poorhouse to the docks and eventually learns a trade. What could be a Horatio Alger exemplum of self-improvement, though, is quickly complicated by irreducible moral conundrums. Despite years of deprivation, when Billy finally scrapes together some money and begins gentrifying old houses, his early experiences have not leavened his sympathies much. “I don’t know what happened to the families we kicked out,” he says blithely, “but they all owed months in rent anyway.” If that irony is too heavy-handed, the course of Billy’s romantic life is more surprising and complex. “I don’t think you ever understand your life,” he says, looking back at the bizarre turn of events, “not till it’s finished and probably not then either.”

That search for self-understanding takes two very different forms in subsequent stories. The only piece set in the future, “Elena,” describes the mid-21st century when our Great Recession has collapsed into the “Great Slump.” Avoiding any sci-fi elements, Faulks depicts a world much like our own but shabbier, a Grover Norquist fantasy of collapsing public education and exorbitantly expensive health care. Elena is a lonely neuroscientist who discovers the molecular basis of human consciousness but enjoys no satisfaction from that breakthrough. “Knowing one was comprised of recycled matter only and that selfhood was a delusion did not take away the aching of the heart.” It’s a provocative idea, one that Richard Powers and Alex Shakar have explored brilliantly, but it feels a little cramped in this short, busy story.

Better is the deceptively tepid tale “Jeanne,” about an early 19th-century nursemaid who “was said to be the most ignorant person in the Limousin village where she had lived most of her life.” Pious and incurious, Jeanne takes care of one family’s children for decades without incident, isolated by actual poverty and the poverty of her imagination. Although precise and sensitively written, the story seems queerly uneventful until Faulks ends with a flashback to a moment of spiritual crisis in Jeanne’s life. It’s startling and strange, the sort of unsettling insight one gets from the finest of Flannery O’Connor’s work.

The longest piece in this thoughtful collection comes last. “Anya” charts the international rise of a pretty folk singer who seeks out pain to make her sad lyrics more authentic. It’s impressively packed with the mechanics of songwriting and groovy details about touring, negotiating contracts, renting studios, hiring backup players, mixing tracks, even designing the record cover. In this pre-iTunes story, Faulks’s comments about the integrity of albums and the meaningful interplay of their carefully ordered songs sound as archaic as his earlier descriptions of Jeanne milking a cow. He’s also got the 1970s vibe just right, with a narrator named Jack who skirts awfully close to parody of the bell-bottom era: “She was my destiny,” he sighs, “and all I could do was ride it.” The story takes too long to develop sufficient surprise or conflict — all that free-love equanimity is bad for fiction — but its final pages offer a profound reflection on the mysterious parts we play in one another’s lives.

Charles is The Washington Post’s fiction editor. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.


By Sebastian Faulks

Henry Holt. 287 pp. $25