Admirers of Sebastian Faulks - and I am firmly among them - never know what to expect next. The output ranges from short conventional novels like The Girl At The Lion d'Or to sprawling epics like Human Traces and his biographical essays in The Fatal Englishman.
This latest work is called a novel but it might be hard to defend that label under the Fair Trading Act. It consists of five entirely separate narratives and, apart from a brief passage in the third piece and a passing reference in the last one to a minor character from the first, there is no tidy conclusion, no weaving together of the strands.
The protagonists and their lives could hardly be more different. In what is a very funny first page we are introduced to Geoffrey Talbot, a modest man of modest gifts who ends up as a teacher in a boys' preparatory school. But the year is 1938 and Talbot finds himself caught up in some of the most dramatic events of the period, including the Holocaust. The horror of the story is emphasised by the unadorned, almost emotionless, starkness of the prose, subtly tuned to mirror Talbot's own character.
Faulks switches voice for the next story, told in the first person. Billy is placed in the workhouse by his parents, unable to support all their children after the father's business collapses as a consequence of the Crimean War. He lives a life of grim deprivation but is a fighter. He establishes a relationship with another inmate and emerges to achieve a position from which his grandchildren "will never even know what my life was like".
The book then moves to Italy and a setting some time into the future. The main character, Elena Duranti, the daughter of a boatbuilder, becomes a scientist whose research identifies the brain circuit that brings self-awareness, the physical basis of being human.
From Italy, Faulks takes us to the Limousin region of France in Napoleonic times and the story of an uneducated domestic servant, who spends all her years in the service of one family and whose life revolves around her untutored relationship with God.
The final narrative, again told in the first person, describes a period in the life of a contemporary musician when he is involved in building the career of a folk singer/songwriter. She is totally absorbed by her art and sacrifices everything in her life, including her relationships, to it.
The settings against which this disparate cast are revealed are totally convincing without displaying too much of the research effort. The elaborate musical detail of the final story may seem a little heavy-handed but musicians do go on like that.
The real strength of the book is not the individual circumstances of the characters but their common humanity.
They are all in their own way admirable, courageous and, to use a much-abused term, decent. They are aware of the fragility of life and struggle with love and uncertainty. They are, like all of us, trying to make sense of and impose a shape on their existence.
The workhouse boy makes a success of his life but is left saying, "I don't think you ever understand your life - not till it's finished and probably not then either. The more I live the less I seem to understand."
The scientist thinks "the idea that humans can capture a mere mood - 'happiness' - and somehow preserve it seems absurd. As an aim for life it is not only doomed but infantile ... after a lifetime of scientitific research she understands nothing at all."
The characters fail to find the answers but there is a nobility in the battle.
Such is Faulks' mastery that I left each of the sections with regret it had finished but was quickly absorbed into the next tale until, sadly, this compelling addition to his oeuvre had ended.
John Gardner is an Auckland reviewer.