Well, I must be a bit thick or something but I really did not get the purpose of this 'novel'. I have always thought of a 'novel' as a long story with a plot and characters that are linked in some sort of organised and sequential manner. This book meets the 'long' and 'characters' requirements, but other than four very small and tenuous links the five parts have nothing to do with each other. I kept waiting and waiting for the connections to show themselves, got to the very last page and still nothing. So, like a number of other reviewers have done, perhaps it is better to read this book as five short stories penned by a master of the writing game.
Because, I loved reading these five stories. Mr Faulkes is an exquisite story teller, creating five very different stories, with five diverse leading players, and five very different voices. Ranging from 1800s rural France, to Victorian London, Trieste in 2029, World War II and 1970s America, we meet respectively Jeanne, an illiterate peasant girl who spends her life working for a middle class family; Billy, who spends most of his childhood in a workhouse, but finds this start in life ends up being to his advantage; Elena, a brilliant scientist, whose life is dominated by a peculiar Catherine/Heathcliffe childhood; Geoffrey, a mild-mannered sport mad school teacher who finds himself betrayed to the Germans, then sent to a concentration camp to do unspeakable things; and finally Jack, an almost-aging rocker who 'discovers' a musical prodigy and launches her into fame and fortune, but at a cost.
All these stories then, are about life, none of them very happy lives really, but that perhaps is the secret to the success of these stories. The author gets right under the skin of his characters, into their very souls as they try to deal with what life is throwing at them. Some thought is given at times by the characters as to what would have happened if a different decision had been made, as I am sure most of us wonder about from time to time. But the business of living takes a lot of energy and so these thoughts simply remain that.
For some stories this works better than others. I really don't get the story of Elena who, with a fellow scientist discovers the bit in the brain that enables human beings to feel, empathise, foresee their own deaths - all things apparently that animals don't consciously think about; and the story about Jeanne which hops from present to past to present to past again, even on a second reading is just plain puzzling. But the stories about Geoffrey, Billy and in particular Jack are very good. They are very insightful into that bit of the brain that deals in empathy, making connections and being human, all helped along by Mr Faulkes' great writing.
So, don't read this book as a novel - you will do your head in, but read it as five stand alone stories about people dealing with what life throws at them. And revel in the writing that gives such insight into the human condition.