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The Fatal Englishman - Three Short Lives by Sebastian Faulks

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Genre: Biography
Rating: 4/5

There is something romantic about the English way of living; it has perhaps become more so now. Even the English themselves no longer stay the same way as during the wide span of time of Sebastian Faulks' work. It certainly wasn't romantic back then. The English have had their share of the good and the bad; they have been hated and revered. And through all of this, like in every other civilisation, the society and its principles have ruled the overarching impression we have created of and about them. But really, we are all humans; how different can we be after all ? Not much it seems. 

The Fatal Englishman  is set over seven odd decades, and chronicles the prodigy (in more ways , referring to things beyond just talent) of three remarkable British citizens. The common tie is the fact that they all died terribly young, barely having touched the thirties. They all hailed from different aspects of life - Christopher (Kit) Wood - a well-remembered (if not majorly) painter, the incredibly dedicated British war hero Richard Hillary and the oddly endearing Jeremy Wolfenden, who is probably remembered more for his homosexuality than his success (was it ?) of his career as a journalist and a spy. Faulks is an engaging author, and his style of writing is the kind that is difficult to tear away from. His tone, as always, is soft, sympathetic to all parties and laced with a an aching sorrow. To top it all, the macabre setting of the impending certainty of death makes this collection a very gripping, if slightly despondent read. 

There is nothing much to discuss in terms of story-lines; these are short biographies after all. Precociousness is a common thread that binds them all, but Faulks has skilfully flown above this aspect, treating it as a given. These men have been shown for what they are worth, and that is significantly a lot more than their brilliance. They have regular emotions, they face the same kind of roadblocks we butt our head against everyday and they face identical societal pressures. Their acumen does not protect them from the mundane-ness of survival. In some ways, ploughing through this book can be a bit intimidating, because the author has innocuously detailed very normal things that have possibly happened to all of us at some point or the other. The knowledge of the ultimate result can be slightly unsettling in such circumstances. 

While there are several books on talent snuffed out at an early age (and there are sadly far too many subjects to write upon), after finishing The Fatal Englishman, it is hard not to feel sorry for yourself. Death just happened, and the causes were many, even though it is usually pinpointed on the self-destructive tendencies of the gentlemen themselves. 

As Faulks himself points out that "short lives are more sensitive indicators of the pressure of public attitudes", his work is an effort towards justifying the same. And it does succeed to a great extent. There had been mild rebuttals in the wake of the publishing of this book in 1996, with people coming forward with their own versions of the protagonists. Some concur with Faulks' views, others disagree, though not vehemently. The striking quality of the work lies in the fact that this could have been a full-fledged biography of any normal citizen, which could also have brought forward the futilities of societal attitudes in the same measure; Faulks has instead chosen a set of public figures, with a troubled past and a redundant future to portray the same. 


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