A Possible Life: A Novel in Five Parts

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Overview

From the critically acclaimed, bestselling author of Birdsong, new fiction about love and war—five transporting stories and five unforgettable lives, linked across centuries.

In Second World War Poland, a young prisoner closes his eyes and pictures going to bat on a sunlit English cricket ground.

Across the yard of a Victorian poorhouse, a man is too ashamed to acknowledge ...

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Overview

From the critically acclaimed, bestselling author of Birdsong, new fiction about love and war—five transporting stories and five unforgettable lives, linked across centuries.

In Second World War Poland, a young prisoner closes his eyes and pictures going to bat on a sunlit English cricket ground.

Across the yard of a Victorian poorhouse, a man is too ashamed to acknowledge the son he gave away.

In a 19th-century French village, an old servant understands—suddenly and with awe—the meaning of the Bible story her master is reading to her.

On a summer evening in the Catskills in 1971, a skinny girl steps out of a Chevy with a guitar and with a song that will send shivers through her listeners' skulls.

A few years from now, in Italy, a gifted scientist discovers links between time and the human brain and between her lover's novel and his life.

Throughout the five masterpieces of fiction that make up A Possible Life, exquisitely drawn and unforgettable characters risk their bodies, hearts and minds in pursuit of the manna of human connection. Between soldier and lover, parent and child, servant and master, and artist and muse, important pleasures and pains are born of love, separations and missed opportunities. These interactions—whether successful or not—also affect the long trajectories of characters' lives.

Provocative and profound, Sebastian Faulks's dazzling new novel journeys across continents and centuries not only to entertain with superb old-fashioned storytelling but to show that occasions of understanding between humans are the one thing that defines us—and that those moments, however fluid, are the one thing that endures.

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Editorial Reviews

The Washington Post - Ron Charles
I'm not sure why Sebastian Faulks calls his new book "a novel"…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…These stories sneak up on you, gently ingratiate themselves, get you settled in comfortably and then batter your heart.
Publishers Weekly
In this masterful book, Faulks links the stories of five disparate lives into a long meditation on the intersection of fate and free will. Five discrete novellas range from 1800s France to Italy in 2029, examining how choices, impulses, and luck (both good and bad) shape lives: into the first, Faulks packs virtually a whole novel; in 1938, Geoffrey Talbot, a undistinguished prep school teacher, confronts the reality of the Holocaust in occupied France by going undercover in a concentration camp. In the middle of the 19th century, in England, seven-year-old Billy Webb’s destitute parents ship him off to the workhouse, where in Dickensian style he grows up struggling through low-wage jobs; its blunt first-person narrator creates a vivid character in Billy. Fifteen years into the future, an accident reveals insights into “raised human consciousness,” but Italian scientist Elena Duranti is still stymied by love, lending this novella a melancholic tone. Jeanne, a once-orphaned servant “said to be the most ignorant person” in her village in 1820s rural France, watches her family unravel with a wiser eye than they suspect; the novella’s broad strokes and coy narration create a fablelike quality. The final novella, about Anya King, a singer in the Joni Mitchell mode, is narrated by her lover and collaborator, Jack, in America in the early 1970s. Stirring descriptions of the music business of that era and of Anya’s own music reveal the seductive talent that led Jack to junk his own life in favor of helping her craft her masterpiece. What Faulks (Birdsong) risks sound twee and clever, and not unlike what David Mitchell did in Cloud Atlas, but this book transcends pat tropes through the beauty and clarity of Faulks’s prose. Each world is drawn with precision, creating widely varied stories that are intensely absorbing, with language flowing and eddying to suit each one. Though there are subtle connections, characters’ lives never cross; they are alive in their own worlds. Faulks resists assembling his parts into a thumping moral; his book is both bigger and less ambitious than that, a contemplation of human existence on the individual level. Highly recommended. Agent: Gillon Aitken, Aitken Alexander Associates. (Dec.)
From the Publisher
"A rueful, pleasurable work, extremely sharp, with true insights into aging and loss. . . Faulks’s writing is often both beautiful and perceptive." – USAToday.com

"Read this brilliant, deeply affecting book and enjoy a master storyteller at work... Faulks works a kind of magic on the page... A Possible Life is filled with such bittersweet wisdom as Faulks’ men and women confront the mysteries of self and others. If these unforgettable characters are in fact connected, it is only in the way we are all connected, forced by time and chance to suffer and change, bound by the heart’s baffling needs." — Dallas Morning News

"Faulks goes further by presenting stand-alone biographies of five characters from different walks of life — even different eras — and only tenuously connecting them. It is a gamble, but one he pulls off superbly....As with the best of Faulks' fiction, "A Possible Life" blends profound ideas with compelling prose, and however we choose to categorize it, the result is far more than the sum of its parts."— Minneapolis Star-Tribune

"The five tales are nothing short of mesmerizing. A Possible Life is both subtle and profound."— Metro Pulse

"Distinctively moving. . . These stories sneak up on you, gently ingratiate themselves, get you settled in comfortably and then batter your heart. . . It’s startling and strange, the sort of unsettling insight one gets from the finest of Flannery O’Connor’s work....its final pages offer a profound reflection on the mysterious parts we play in one another’s lives." –The Washington Post

"The chief pleasure in reading ‘A Possible Life’ comes from feeling you can wander off with any of its characters and find a story every bit as real and compelling as what's on the page." — Los Angeles Times

"A Possible Life is an examination of human souls and the impact the decisions we make have on our lives and futures. Had any of these characters chosen a different road, the outcome of their lives may have been forever altered. Faulks’ novel —- or collection of novellas —— succeeds because it does not overtly go out of its way to tie the five tales together."—Bookreporter.com

"Each of the stories could stand on its own, and together, they show off Faulks’ versatility. Each of his characters has his or her own way of experiencing the world, and Faulks makes those different worlds realistically detailed and believable." – Columbus Dispatch

"A Possible Life is a rueful, pleasurable work, extremely sharp, with true insights into aging and loss."—USA Today

"Beautifully written. . . One could quibble over whether this is really a novel or a collection of stories, but that may be missing the point. For those of us who remember listening to music on albums, A Possible Life is most reminiscent of an LP—a gathering of distinct expressions that together make up a satisfying whole." – BookPage

"These five stories are provocative meditations on love, loss, evil and what it means to be human, beautifully rendered by a prose master."— Shelf Awareness Pro

"In this masterful book, Faulks links the stories of five disparate lives into a long meditation on the intersection of fate and free will. Five discrete novellas range from 1800s France to Italy in 2029, examining how choices, impulses, and luck (both good and bad) shape lives. . . .What Faulks (Birdsong) risks sound twee and clever, and not unlike what David Mitchell did in Cloud Atlas, but this book transcends pat tropes through the beauty and clarity of Faulks’s prose. Each world is drawn with precision, creating widely varied stories that are intensely absorbing . . .a contemplation of human existence on the individual level. Highly recommended." – Publisher’s Weekly (Starred Review)

"Delicately crafted." — Kirkus

“A tightly written, moving and exciting work of fiction that should thrill established readers as well as win new fans. If you think you know Faulks – or even (and especially) if you haven’t enjoyed his previous novels – it’s time to look again.”

—Anthony Cummins, The Telegraph, UK

 

"Sebastian Faulks's fine new novel does not, at first glance, look like a novel at all - more like a gathering of stories, each one yielding a new character. Only gradually do we realize how these many voices, so far apart in time and place, fuse together and overlap, like songs on an album, to form a stirring and delicate whole. One of them speaks of merging 'the flame and the facts', our ardent yearnings with the hard detail of ordinary life. In Faulks's masterful hands, fact and flame become one."

—Anthony Lane, author of Nobody’s Perfect: Writings from The New Yorker

 

“This magnificent, complex, fine-grained book of stories is about love and loss in all its colors, in all its eras. I am best qualified to judge the final story Anya, which is one of the most authentic portrayals of a time and place — the early '70s in the folk-rock milieu, from a rural upstate New York, to Greenwich Village, to L.A. — I have ever read.

We all have magical people in our pasts — glittery, fleeting, transformative: embarrassed secrets because our thrall to them was never quite reciprocated. This book liberates us from that embarrassment and reminds us that unrequited large-R-romance is a lot of what makes life worth living, and that such elegiac, flickering interludes can often be as emotionally permanent as those with the more steadfast people in our lives.”

– Sheila Weller, author of New York Times bestseller Girls Like Us

“Bravura prose . . . .Critics often underestimate Faulks’s versatility: his protean restlessness, half-disguised by mainstream bestsellerdom.”

—Boyd Tonkin, The Independent (UK)

 

“So there’s quite a thesis here, quite a mystical proposition. . . . [These stories] are united by all asking ‘whether individuals are ever really satisfactorily distinguished from one another or whether in fact we are all taking part in the same cosmic story, the same joined-up life.’ . . . [They are] delicate, persuasive expressions.” 

—David Sexton, The London Evening Standard (UK)

 

  “Each world feels complete, vivid and convincing. . . . .In the end it does what any good novel should—it unsettles, it moves, and it forces us to question who we are.”

—Lucy Atkins,  The Sunday Times (UK)

Library Journal
International best seller Faulks is noted for his sensitive handling of historical material, and, indeed, four of the five linked stories here tread historical ground. Among Faulks's protagonists are a young prisoner of war in World War II Poland who imagines going to bat on a cricket field, a man in Victorian times desolate because he has given away his son, a servant in 19th-century France suddenly grasping the meaning of a Bible story, and a girl in the 1970s Catskills whose music mesmerizes. Then there's the futurist story about a scientist in Italy drawing parallels between time and the human brain. All juicily readable stuff.
Library Journal
Geoffrey Talbot, a skilled British cricket player with a gift for languages, has taught at a boys' prep school for just one year before World War II breaks out and he signs up. Billy is seven years old in 1859 when his poverty-stricken parents choose him from among their five children to be sent to a British workhouse. In 2029, nine-year-old Elena Duranti is isolated from her peers by her brilliant mind and all-consuming curiosity; when her father brings home the orphan Bruno, the two soon bond as inseparable siblings. Jeanne is an uneducated, incurious, deeply religious peasant in 19th-century France who has been in service to the same family for as long as she can remember. And finally, in 1971, Brit Jack narrates the story of Anya, a troubled young hippie with a singing voice that stuns her listeners, captures hearts, and derails lives. VERDICT Faulks's (Birdsong) literary artistry is on gorgeous display as he brings to life five wildly disparate protagonists in stories linked by the strength of their characters, all challenged by the horrors of war, of abandonment, of the struggle between trust and faith, and of romance gone shockingly wrong. [See Prepub Alert, 6/11/12.]—Beth E. Andersen, Ann Arbor Dist. Lib., MI
Kirkus Reviews
Faulks explores five "possible lives" in a work that's billed as a novel but reads far more like five separate novellas. The pieces range across time (1822 to 2029) and space (France to England to Los Angeles in the 1970s), and each is named after its central character. The first story, "Geoffrey," takes us into the life of Geoffrey Talbot, who becomes a schoolteacher, a soldier, a prisoner of war and finally (again) a schoolteacher. Talbot's facility with French causes him to fly some missions into occupied France, but he's captured and sent to a concentration camp, where he struggles to maintain his humanity. After the war, he's institutionalized for a while as he tries to recover a feeling life. The next story is set in Victorian England and introduces us to Billy Webb, a young boy whose family gives him up to the union workhouse. He winds up making a life for himself, eventually marrying, but when his wife, Alice, is sent to an asylum, Billy takes up with his wife's sister. They have a child together, and all goes well until Alice miraculously recovers and is released. "Elena" has to do with a dreamy young girl whose childhood is interrupted by the appearance of Bruno, an orphan taken in by her parents. Eventually, Elena and Bruno become soul mates and lovers...and then she discovers that Bruno is her half brother, the child of a previous affair of their father. The next story, "Jeanne," concerns an ignorant young girl in 19th-century France, an orphan who (we find out toward the end of the story) had become enamored of a monk. The final story, "Anya," is set in counterculture America in the early 1970s and focuses on an affair between the title character, an astonishingly talented and original singer/songwriter, and a record producer. Delicately crafted stories.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781611736724
  • Publisher: Center Point
  • Publication date: 2/28/2013
  • Edition description: Large Print Edition
  • Pages: 431
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 1.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Sebastian Faulks is the author of  ten novels. They include the UK number one bestseller A Week in December; Human Traces; On Green Dolphin Street; Charlotte Gray, which was made into a film starring Cate Blanchett; and the classic Birdsong, which has sold more than three million copies and was recently adapted for television. In 2008, he was invited to write a James Bond novel, Devil May Care, to mark the centenary of Ian Fleming. In between books he wrote and presented the four-part television series Faulks on Fiction for the BBC. He lives in London with his wife and their three children.

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Read an Excerpt

Part Five

Anya

1971

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 fret board, gazing into the distance. There was a can of beer open on the deck. We didn’t count alcohol as a drug and American lager almost wasn’t beer. 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.

Times like this, I often used to just sit there and stare out towards the woods. And I liked the idea that Lowri would soon be cooking, and that Becky and Suzanne, the stray hitchhikers, would be there too when it got dark.

There was the sound of a car coming up from the village. You could pick it out by the tower of dust as it snaked along the road, vanishing outside the clapboard post office with its tattered flag on a pole, coming into view again on the low-hedged straight beside the apple barns. It was an old Chevy pickup, painted green with a flower stenciled on the door, so I knew who it was before he even pulled over in front of the house: Rick Kohler with his kilo bag of white powder and the body panels of his truck stuffed with grass.

“Hi there, my man.” Rick was a scrawny guy with glasses. His hair always needed washing and the trousers hung off his nonexistent backside. He looked like the chemistry swot from school. He certainly knew a lot about drugs.

I offered him beer, but he waved me away. “I got something special for you, man,” he said.

“Christ, what next?”

Rick looked towards the Chevy. “Come on out, honey!”

The passenger door on the far side opened, and I saw a female head. Round the front of the pickup came a skinny girl about twenty-two years old. She had a floral cotton skirt, sandals and a white peasant blouse. Her dark straight hair was half tied back, secured by shades she’d pushed back on top of her head. She had suspicious brown eyes and she carried a guitar by the neck. Her high cheekbones made me think of a Cheyenne. She paused, unsure, and at that moment the sinking sun came through her hair from behind, through the short sleeves of her blouse, lighting her up. This was my first sight of Anya King.

She climbed the steps to the porch and awkwardly shook hands. Normally at a moment like this, Rick would be talking, rattling on like a typewriter. This time, though, he was as close to quiet as he could be.

Lowri came outside and Rick introduced her to Anya, who stayed kind of reserved.

“I hope you don’t mind,” said Rick. “I asked a few other people to come up later on as well.”

“From the city?” I said.

“Yeah. Some.”

“Sure thing,” said Lowri. I knew she did mind, a little, but would think it wrong to say so.

“Guess they’ll be here about nine,” said Rick.

I suggested we go to Maria’s place to swim first, and Rick said that was cool. With the money from two platinum albums, Maria had bought the biggest house in the neighborhood. A refugee from LA, she spent summers upstate with her husband, John Vintello, who was a lawyer with MPR Records in New York, kind of a straight arrow, not a shyster.

The pool was in the yard with apple trees round it. Maria put a Dave Brubeck record on the outdoor system. Rick came out through the French doors, naked, walked through the hissing sprinklers on the lawn and jumped in the water. Maria came out from the summerhouse at the far end of the pool, also naked, the skin of her breasts shining with suntan oil. I never much liked this communal naked thing, but it was okay once you were in. I looked back to the house, where Anya was sitting on a lounger, sipping a drink. She’d put on a straw hat and looked like she wanted to stay in the shade.

Rick leaned against the side of the pool, threw his arms back over the edge, and talked to Maria. His hair hung over his shoulders and drops of water fell from his mustache. He was getting up to full speed now, yattering away, and I wondered if he’d had a quick snort indoors.

John, Maria’s husband, came back from the city, driving his station wagon up from the railway halt. He was starting a month’s vacation and was in a happy state of mind. MPR had three acts in the Billboard Top 20 and they had six people from A & R out on the road scouting for new talent. John was planning to sail a boat with Maria and a couple of friends from Key West down to the Caribbean. He’d asked a few weeks earlier if Lowri and I would like to come aboard, and we had both pictured storms blowing in from the Gulf of Mexico and Maria’s pill habit in a cramped space. “But you’re a Brit,” said Lowri, “you’re meant to have the sea in your blood.” “And you’re a Yankee girl, you’re meant to be a pioneer.” “Horses, Jack. Covered wagons. We left the sea at Plymouth Rock and never got our feet wet again.” After the two of us had spent an entire evening calculating what might be the longest period between landfalls we knew it wasn’t our scene.

There was no swimming for John. He brought out some beers and a jug of margaritas. The sun was going down and I called Lowri from the phone in the hall. She said two of Rick’s friends had already showed up from New York—Denny Roberts, whose band Blue Ridge Cowboys had had a Top 10 album in the spring (a kind of country rock thing with interesting harmonies), and his folksinger girlfriend, Tommi Fontaine.

We took two cars back to the farm, and I finally got Anya to talk a little. Her voice was rich and low. She told me she’d been playing in a coffee bar in the Village when Rick came up and spoke to her after her set. “I was, like, a little distrustful of this guy coming on to me. I’ve been handling my own material for three years. Making my own bookings.”

“You were still in a coffee bar?”

“Sure. But a New York coffee bar. To a girl from Devils Lake, North Dakota, a Village coffee bar’s as good as Radio City.”

“How long have you been in New York?”

“Two years. I had a job in a kind of songwriting factory for a bit.”

“The Brill Building?”

“Yeah, like that, only worse. In Brooklyn. We were in a row of small cubicles. It was like a musical reform school. A state pen for tunesmiths. I sold two songs. Two B-sides.”

“And you left?”

“Yeah, I’d started hearing songs on albums that weren’t made for commercial radio. Songs with real words. I saw you could write a song about . . . you know, anything.”

“Not just love songs.”

“Sure. And you could write for your own voice, to your own strengths.”

“Are we going to hear you play?”

She smiled—the first time I’d seen her smile. It was a little lopsided. “It’s a long way to bring a guitar and leave it in the trunk.”

“I look forward to it. Rick Kohler has great taste.”

She looked at the floor of the car, then back up at me. “I liked your last record, by the way,” she said. Her eyes were flaring with light, but guarded.

“Thank you. We’ve pretty much broken up. The band, I mean. I didn’t like the production. I thought it was too West Coast.”

Anya focused on rolling a small cigarette with tobacco from a tin in her Mexican shoulder bag, as though she felt she’d given enough of herself for now. She felt no awkwardness in just shutting down. There were no fade-outs, no good-byes.

The farmhouse we lived in had once been little more than a barn and was still only half converted. In the music room at one end of the ground floor, there were a piano, three guitars, various harmonicas, maracas and tambourines, and a double-height window that gave onto the woods. At the other end of the ground floor, Lowri had made a living space with sofas and a kitchen and a brick fireplace, which we seldom used for fear of setting light to the whole building. There were red curtains at the window, cottage furniture and always jars of wildflowers. The two bedrooms were upstairs, in what had once been a hayloft.

Two more friends of Rick’s showed up, plus Becky and Suzanne, and after we’d all eaten we went outside and sat on the grass. Rick and I took guitars and played a bit just to set the atmosphere, which was fairly mellow in any case, with red wine and some fat joints going round. It was still hot. We’d brought out a couple of hurricane lamps and some candles and you could see the moths zooming about crazily.

I remember so well how Rick laid down his guitar and stood up, smirking from ear to ear, like a kid who knows some stupendous news.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, bowing, his red cigarette-end arcing back in the flourish of his hand, “may I present to you something the like of which you have never heard before in your life, the unique . . . Anya King.”

Anya, cross-legged and unsmiling, took up her own guitar and began to finger a few notes, stopping to tune the strings. She had a delicate picking touch with the right hand, and the sound of the instrument was ethereal. It wasn’t the metal six-string tone we were all used to. I wondered whether it was the guitar itself or the tuning.

“Okay,” she said. “I’ll sing four songs. This first one’s called ‘Genevieve.’ ”

For a long half minute, the fingers picked with fussy precision, seeming to use the top three strings only. At last the thumb flushed an arpeggio, bringing the lower notes in for the first time, then it was back to the home chords, minor, frosty. And then came the voice. It was high and clear, much higher than her speaking voice. She went through the middle of each note like someone bursting soap bubbles with a pin. There was this terrible purity. The song was about a girl lost in the city, trying to make her way, and it was set in the dead of winter. And out there on the hot summer grass, all you could feel was the ice in your fingertips. You could feel the bone-freezing cold of the back alleys, hear the trash-can lids roll and the rattle of old fire escapes where the homeless sleep. In her song she built this fragile world, but hard, cold, made real by the force of her imaginative belief in it. She ended with a minor chord struck slowly down through all the strings, and lightly smacked down with her palm to stop the ring.

I had heard nothing like it in my life. Most of our group, sitting on the grass, were looking at their laps, fumbling, as though they didn’t want to be the first to offer an opinion.

Anya coughed and plucked the A string, twisting the tuning peg, perhaps for something to do. “Okay,” she said. “The second song is called ‘You Next Time.’ ”

Where “Genevieve” had been sideways-on, like a short story about someone else, this song was so direct, so confessional it made you flinch. It was in the first person and it sounded as though it had been channeled that morning direct from her own experience. She’d loved a man she couldn’t have, had given way to a cruel separation, but vowed to meet him in another life. “No mistake the second time around, / I will die and rise, the shadow on your wall, / My name will be the only one you call, / Oh, my darling, you next time.” The emotional openness, the lack of self-protection, was a little frightening.

In the break between songs, Anya smiled her thanks for the friendly clapping, but didn’t really seem interested in our response. I didn’t like the third song so much. It was called “Reservation Town” and had a social edge. There was folk and protest music, a tinge of bluegrass, and it was less purely original. It had ancestry. What I did hear in this song, though, was the range of her voice. It wasn’t just the three-octave span, it was the variety of tone when she went into the lower register. Here, the cold purity was touched by something warmer and more womanly. It was a beautiful sound. I’d always felt the best soul and pop singers, women more than men, had a few notes they needed to hit as often as possible. Anya had two or three of those notes where her mid-range met her lower that you just wanted to hear again and again. The word she sang could have been “toothpaste,” it wouldn’t have mattered; the sound was so exquisite it sent shivers through your skull.

The silence after the song was easier to live with this time. Anya looked round the circle, a smile twitching the corner of her lips, as though she was thinking, What is it with these people? She retuned again. She was a fussy, fussy musician. “This song is really meant to be played on the piano, but I’ll play it on the guitar. It’s called ‘Julie in the Court of Dreams.’ ”

There was another slow, finger-picking introduction. The song began as observational, a little like “Genevieve,” with an open compassion for the girl it was about. You felt how protective Anya was of this imagined Julie, and maybe of all women. Then the music opened out. The voice lowered and Anya brought herself into the song, with that sudden rushing confessional we’d had on “You Next Time.” She somehow managed to fuse her true self with this invented girl and make it universal. It was a huge thing to do, but it seemed modest—and that was what was so moving. By the time she played the third verse, the melody had already become familiar. It sounded like a song that had always been there, yet like nothing you’d ever heard before.

When she finished, she laid the guitar down on the grass beside her and said, “Okay, I’m going to get a drink now. Someone else can play.”

But no one moved.

Anya liked staying with us. She seemed happy just to mess around in our farmhouse by day, go up to swim at Maria’s in the afternoon, then join me playing music in the evening.

I wasn’t a great pianist, but I could fill out what she was doing with some chords on the warmer songs. There was no point in trying to play guitar for Anya because her own sound was so distinctive. Right from the start she disliked any other voice on her songs, especially a man’s, even though I could reach the notes in falsetto and could think up harmonies. When she saw my face, she started to laugh. “All right, Freddy, you can play some chords.” I don’t know why she called me Freddy. My name is Jack. She often did this, I discovered later, finding names she thought suited people better than their own.

Although for four years I’d recorded my own songs and several joint compositions with my band, and Anya King had recorded nothing, she only tolerated me as a session man–cum–makeshift producer. But I didn’t mind; I knew I was at the start of something extraordinary.

Rick was always trying to shift Anya back to the city. He’d found her a gig in a bar in SoHo, still pretty unexplored country then. It didn’t start till September, but he kept telling her she should get back to the city and rehearse, get a feel for the venue.

“Just another few days, Rick,” she’d say. “I’m really getting my head together here.”

“You stay, honey,” Lowri said.

The summer slid by. Suzanne and Becky moved out of the second bedroom so Anya could have it. The girls took sleeping rolls out onto the porch or the grass, though they tended to get visited and licked by Grace and Janis.

Rick disappeared to an inn somewhere off the interstate, maybe to score coke, but after a few days came back and slept on the living room couch. The general store in the village sold pretty much all you needed; we got vegetables from the local farms, and once a week one of us would go to the supermarket in town to get cases of beer.

The weather stayed hot by day and cool enough to sleep well at night. Every evening after dinner, Rick would say, “We got to fix this chick a record deal, man.”

And I would say, “Pass that joint over here, you mean bastard. There’s always tomorrow.”

And Anya would say solemnly, “Tomorrow is another day.”

Lowri would sit watching it all with her amused expression.

“Days like this don’t come round that often,” I said one night.

“What about yesterday?” said Anya.

“Yeah,” said Rick. “And the day before.”

“And tomorrow,” said Lowri.

This seemed the funniest thing that any of us had ever heard. For about twenty minutes we were in agony as the first one able to breathe would say, “What about the Wednesday before . . . l-a-a-s-t!”

A telephone call did come, though, from MPR Records. Some kid in A & R that John Vintello had put on to us wanted to come right on up, or send a train ticket for Anya to go down to the city.

“Screw that,” I said. “You should play some more gigs. Let’s get you in some places up here. Just till the end of August. There’s plenty of small venues in town and a lot of tourists to play to.”

So next day Anya and Rick and I got in the Chevy and headed into town. We stood in daylight bars that smelled of last night’s beer where the soles of your boots ripped up from the sticky floor when you tried to move. Rick did his spiel, Anya looked demure and icy, I kept an eye out for trouble. A guy with a white Afro and six rows of beads sat Anya on a tall bar stool to play while he slumped down at a low table so he could see up her skirt. An old woman in a pool hall said Anya could play for tips. A bar on the waterfront liked her enough to offer her a week, but not till September.

We went with the white Afro at five bucks an hour, beer and tips. He told Anya to sing some folk songs, which she had to do anyway because she didn’t have enough material of her own to fill the time.

“I like that,” he said, when she’d played him one. “Is that Appalachian or what?”

“Sure. See you Saturday.”

Back in the car, Rick said, “Was that schmuck trying to get a look at your panties?”

“I think so.”

“What a pervert.”

“Don’t worry, I wasn’t wearing any.”

She was the only one who could shut Rick up.

Those few weeks, I was so happy I hardly dared inhale. I think it was the same for all of us. Households could break up as quickly as they formed and no one liked to talk about what made this one work where the last one crashed. I’d first met Lowri when I was in LA after my English band had broken up and she was living in Laurel Canyon in a house with six other people, three of them with giant egos. Lowri was the glue that held it together and no one seemed to notice how beautiful she was, with her brown eyes and straw hair and dusty freckles. She was always pushing herself into the background. I noticed her, though. She and I went to the Troubadour and the Whisky a Go Go and saw all those people who’d go on to be famous. That was way back, out west. But this summer, with Anya and Rick. What made our farmhouse run so well? It could have been the joker in the pack: maybe Rick gave people just enough to find annoying, so he was the lightning conductor. Maybe it was the bit-part characters, Becky and Suzanne, who went to work at the big neighboring farm by day, saving up their wages to travel in the fall, and earned their keep by helping out and being cool (and in both cases, I suspected, visiting Rick on his couch in the night. The runty little guy had a way of getting girls to do things to him). Maybe it helped having Maria and John up the road for a change of scene. Also, there were no money hassles, thanks to the royalties still coming in from my last album.

We accommodated Anya. Soft-spoken, young, unrecorded, mild-mannered . . . Was there anything that wasn’t easy about it? The size of her talent, I suppose. The silent power of her self-belief. It left this kind of force field round her. She was in no hurry to get back to the city; it was like she knew her time would come and there was no need to rush. Perhaps she could foresee the limousines and the press officers and the chain hotels and all the other things that would threaten her ability to find the pure thoughts inside her.

The gig we’d set up in town turned out pretty well. The audience was folkies for the most part, but with plenty of vacationers passing through and a solid core of drinkers who took a lot of winning over. When she needed to retune or change guitars and they just wanted something to sing along to, there was kind of a big frost. She never played a note until she was one hundred percent ready.

When did I begin to fall in love with Anya King? Before I met her. Before I knew her. The day her head bobbed up from the other side of Rick’s car . . . I felt I’d known her all my life and here she was at last. But she was someone I was also dead afraid of, because she was too much in me, too much a part of me, and, in some way I couldn’t understand, stronger than me. She was more me than I was.

And I had to deal with the fact that I still loved Lowri. But the way I loved Lowri was full of respect. She was the opposite of me: she was fair, practical, considerate, wise. I was none of those things. We got on so well because we complemented each other. When I met her it was like: I’ll take this one, she’s the deal, she’s got what it takes, she’s got all I need.

With Anya there was no weighing up and no decision. There were things about her I thought wrong, things I didn’t understand, and ways in which she was a lesser woman than Lowri. But none of them mattered at all. She was my destiny, and all I could do was ride it.

“Come on, Freddy,” she’d say each day in the evening light, banging on the bonnet of the Chevy. “Time to go. I’m gonna try that new song tonight.”

She’d learned to drive an automobile when she was twelve—anything to get out of Devils Lake—but liked me to take charge of the expedition, like a roadie. In my bad moments I thought maybe she gave me roles in her life out of charity, but mostly I knew she needed someone to be between her and the world. She needed me to mediate for her. And I was thrilled, though I didn’t let on.

“This time last year I was a guy with a Top Twenty record. Now I’m an unpaid driver.”

“We make a left here, Freddy.”

The new song she was trying out was called “Ready to Fly,” and it made me excited and uncomfortable at the same time. It wasn’t a fully personal-history thing like “You Next Time,” but it seemed to refer to her own life at that moment. The chorus had a seesawing quality that had the people in the bar tapping their feet and humming along. The words went:

There’s a time you’re unsteady

This feeling is heady

You know you could easily cry

But you’ve spun there already

This frightening eddy

Now you know that you’re ready to fly.

There were a few things that kept the song from being as simple as that chorus looked. The tune kept going from major to minor and back again, so you weren’t sure how happy she was. The final word, “fly,” was on that breaking verge between her middle and lower register, and she slid over two or three semitones. There was a “he” or a “him” in the song and if you were a woman listening then it could have referred to your man, but it could also have been someone in particular for Anya.

And was it just me, or was there a rhyme word that was obviously missing? And wasn’t that word “Freddy”?

I’d sit at the back with some of the rowdier guys and try to set an example by applauding like crazy at the end of a song. Sometimes they’d look up to see what I was on about, and sometimes they wouldn’t bother. I’d first played at the age of fifteen with my brothers in pubs in south London, so I knew the score.

The middle of the set was given to folk songs and to covers of other people’s material. It amused Anya to pass off one of her own as a song from the Appalachians. She liked to watch some of the older men nod in approval, as though they’d had enough of this young woman’s life and appreciated a real song now.

When Anya played, I was in the back-alley cold of “Genevieve,” in the wilderness of “Julie in the Court of Dreams,” in the vertigo of “Ready to Fly.” And I was in her fingers on the strings, in her breathing, in her phrasing. I was pouring all my energy into her. I was part of something being born.

Copyright © 2012 by Sebastian Faulks

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Reading Group Guide

1.  How was Geoffrey changed after he returned home from the war? What accounted for this change? How was he changed in the very end of his story? What is meant by his feeling that a “rearrangement of particles had taken place within him?” Are we able to change the basic structure of who we are?

2.  Billy is able to change his circumstances and achieve success through sheer work and determination, yet life has a way of confounding some of his plans. He says, “the more I live, the less I seem to understand.” How does his worldview evolve throughout his life? Is life something that can be fully grasped or understood at any single point in our lives?

3.  What do you think determines how and why we become the people that we do? Do you think that our lives are dictated by fate, or is it the choices we make that change the course of our lives? What are some examples from the lives in these fi ve stories that support your belief? 

4.  The stories in the novel connect across time and space, yet characters within each story grapple with a yearning for connection with others. Do you think that the events and circumstances of the time are what affect human condition and emotion? Or is this desire for companionship something that is innate within all of us, no matter the circumstances?

5.  In the story of Elena, Bruno speaks of his and Elena’s differing approaches to life. He sees life as a mix between “the fl ame and the facts,” in which the flame always comes fi rst. Bruno is willing to live dual lives, with more than one love. Elena, on the other hand, wants a world in which each of us gets only one life—only one love. Explain how these two approaches are demonstrated in their relationship. Do you think that there are two types of people—the Elenas and the Brunos?

6.  Jeanne believed that Brother Bernard had the saving power of Jesus, yet she chooses to run away from him and her life at the monastery. Why does she turn back from the very thing she seems to be seeking? Do you think Jeanne was able to fi nd what she was searching for in the end? Or did she fi nd a life that was different yet as satisfying? Are we able to reclaim our lives once we turn away from a seemingly important path?

7.  What leads to Anya’s breakdown? Why does she leave the United States when everything seems to be perfect in her career and romantic life? What do her songs represent to her? To Jack Wyatt? And what do they represent within this novel?

8.  The five narratives that make up this novel are interconnected to the stories that come before and after. What are the different details and/or thematic elements that fl ow between the stories? How effective are the stories in functioning as a complete work?

9.  What was your reaction to the ending of each story? Did you find that these stories ended on a hopeful note, or were you disappointed with the way things turned out? Sebastian Faulks has said that he is a romantic. How does his romanticism affect the outcomes in this book?

10. The novel plays with the idea that each of the fi ve stories contain possible lives that can transcend time, place, and character. Even within each life, there is the possibility of alternate lives. Do you think that there is one life that claims each person, or can anyone be the main character in a sequence of possible lives?

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
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Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Posted December 13, 2012

    A Possible Life, A Novel in Five Parts is available to Kindle ow

    A Possible Life, A Novel in Five Parts is available to Kindle owners, why isn't this book available to Nook owners as well????


    4 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted November 1, 2013

    I LOVED LOVED LOVED this book. It reminded me a little bit of s

    I LOVED LOVED LOVED this book. It reminded me a little bit of some stories by the Russian writer Lyudmila Ulitskaya in the way they look over a person's whole life or a big chunk of it, imbedding in the arc life details as well as philosophy. Very quickly, Faulks paints such different environments from Victorian England to 70s New York and California. And different voices. I bought it all. What is even more amazing are his characters: they felt like real people to me and their lives felt like real lives - sometimes ordinary, sometimes full of strange events. There is subtle character development, but never hinging on moralizing "growth". I thought these stories were sad and beautiful and full. The writing is economical where it needs to be and magnificently lyrical when the narrative slows down. Often, it plain took my breath away.
    I wouldn't really call this a novel in five parts, but rather a collection of 5 novellas, just because the parts don't seem to connect in any obvious way (or at least a way that we are used to in novels or linked story collections) except for a certain mood and style. And, of course, there is that little wink of a reference in the end. Perhaps, the main protagonist of this "novel" is not really all the characters, but life itself, hence the title of the book. You just want to say: "isn't it amazing how it happens sometimes…"
    I am a new Faulks convert and am looking forward to reading his other books. It's great to discover a writer mid-career, who has already published so many books.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 2, 2014

    So well written, as Faulks can do, but I just didn't get the con

    So well written, as Faulks can do, but I just didn't get the connecting thread of the parts.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 1, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

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