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.