Book Review: 'A Possible Life'

Critic Alan Cheuse reviews the new novel by British novelist Sebastian Faulks, called A Possible Life: A Novel in Five Parts.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And now a review of the latest from the prolific British novelist Sebastian Faulks. It's called "A Possible Life," and it tells the story of a series of characters across several centuries. Our reviewer Alan Cheuse says he's still wondering what to make of those characters.

ALAN CHEUSE, BYLINE: A new work of fiction by one of England's serious popular writers, made up of five long chapters. Each of them stands alone as a character study deeply rooted in the times: an ordinary British officer caught up in the Nazi internments during the Second World War; an illiterate French servant in the 19th-century countryside; a boy who survives early life in a Victorian England poorhouse; an Italian scientist, expert on the workings of the brain; a '60s rock 'n' roll British guitarist madly in love with a seemingly frail folk-rock singer of genius.

Do we read these as somehow connected or as separate works that the writer has pretentiously called a novel in parts? I read the first one, a marvel of narrative breadth and depth, which begins in 1938 and takes a lonely, shallow-minded Englishman through the war, a Nazi internment camp and then into a mad middle age. Next came the 19th-century English lad in a London poorhouse. I wondered how this connected to the previous sequence and to the one that followed, set in Italy in 2029.

Yet, with each of these, after a while, I got so caught up in their stories that I stopped wondering - until the next one. What connects these narratives, all these characters so distinctly different and all of them fraternally linked in their indelible wonderments and suffering? Five instances of the human condition, five beautifully made novellas, five stories out of 5 billion, of how we lived, how we are living, how we might live tomorrow.

BLOCK: That's reviewer Alan Cheuse talking about the latest novel from Sebastian Faulks. It's called "A Possible Life." At our website, you can find Alan's suggestions of books to share this holiday season. That's at npr.org/bestbooks.

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