I recently read the book that last week was top of the paperback best-seller lists – Sebastian Faulk’s A Week In December. While I enjoyed the experience – I found it an easy and engrossing read – I was left feeling unsatisfied, as if I’d eaten a chocolate mousse: easy on the palate, but hardly sustaining.
The novel, set in one week in December 2007, aspires to be ambitious: a state-of-the-nation book, a sweeping, Dickensian look at contemporary London. But it’s as if Faulks drew up a mental checklist, as he sat down to write, of everything he finds annoying and threatening in contemporary society: reality TV shows, Islamic fundamentalism, cyclists, book reviewers, bankers, foreign-owned football clubs,virtual-reality games, teenagers, skunk – you get the picture.
The Dickensian comparison that comes to mind is Our Mutual Friend, at the opening of which there is to be a great dinner party:
Mr and Mrs Veneering were bran-new people in a bran-new house in a bran-new quarter of London. Everything about the Veneerings was spick and span new. All their furniture was new, all their friends were new, all their servants were new, their plate was new, their carriage was new, their harness was new, their horses were new, their pictures were new, they themselves were new, they were as newly married as was lawfully compatible with their having a bran-new baby, and if they had set up a great-grandfather, he would have come home in matting from the Pantechnicon, without a scratch upon him, French polished to the crown of his head.
For, in the Veneering establishment, from the hall-chairs with the new coat of arms, to the grand pianoforte with the new action, and upstairs again to the new fire-escape, all things were in a state of high varnish and polish. And what was observable in the furniture, was observable in the Veneerings–the surface smelt a little too much of the workshop and was a trifle sticky. […]
This evening the Veneerings give a banquet…fourteen in company all told. Four pigeon-breasted retainers in plain clothes stand in line in the hall. A fifth retainer, proceeding up the staircase with a mournful air–as who should say, ‘Here is another wretched creature come to dinner; such is life!’–announces, ‘Mis-ter Twemlow!’
Faulks launches his narrative with a big dinner-party, too. Sophie Topping, the wife of a newly-elected Cameroonian MP, is planning the event that will actually take place at the end of the week spanned by the novel. But whereas Dickens introduces those attending the Veneerings’ banquet with deft character sketches, with Faulks we encounter a bullet-point list (over three pages) of the important people who will attend her soiree. Very disheartening.
What ensues is a mish-mash of satirical comedy on London literarati, a portentous examination of Islamic fundamentalism, a bit of a thriller, and what is obviously a carefully-researched and detailed narrative of the sharp practices that led to the financial crash. At the centre of this narrative, like a spider in his web, is the mega-rich and completely amoral John Veals, whose machinations constiute the heart of the book. Veals’s unethical and illegal stratagems provide an excellent insight into what went on in the financial markets before the crash. As one character declaims, shockingly, at the Toppings’ dinner-party:
It’s a fraud as old as markets themselves. The only difference is that it’s been done on a titanic scale. At the invitation of the politicians. Behind the backs of the regulators and with the dumb connivance of the auditors. And with the fatal misunderstanding of the ratings agencies.
The main problem with the book is that, unlike Dickens, Faulks is not successful at creating believable characters across the social spectrum. He is much happier with the world of metropolitan literati and those seated around the table at the Toppings’. But his portrayal of a Jenni Fortune, a London tube driver is less well-realised, and as for Hassan al-Rashid, prospective suicide bomber, he should have just left well alone.