Nothing like a good “state of the nation” story, mixed with contemporary satire, to get a bookclub going. It was difficult to know what to discuss because Faulks didn’t shy away from any modern-day issues. He ticked all the boxes with A Week in December: terrorism, immigration, financial crisis, drugs, the super-rich, virtual life, reality TV, cyber porn, religious ideology and even ridiculous book awards:
The Pizza Palace Book of the Year prize, somewhat controversially, was awarded to either a children’s story, a travel book, or a biography. Excluding all fiction was a bold thing to do, but it was felt that novelists already had enough prizes of their own.
It might seem a lot to put in 400-page, but I think Faulks pulled it off, probably because of the narrative structure he used. The book follows the lives of several Londoners during the same 7 days. Some of them are clearly connected (father & son, lawyer & client), but you must pay attention not to miss more subtle points of contact.
This setting alone made me like the story, since I’m a sucker for books about random connections between people and their influence on each other’s lives (Let the Great World Spin, Cloud Atlas).
The characters were very different from each other: a book-lover tube driver, who by night lives in a virtual game similar to Second Life; an Pakistani “chutney magnate” who’ll meet the Queen and worries about what they’ll talk about, so hires someone to give him and English-Lit crash-course; a young Muslim in search of identity who experiments with socialism, a local group of thugs and ends up being persuaded to take part in an act of terrorism by religious extremists; a Premier League Polish footballer, etc.
I found them all believable, even if they represented “types”. They all added something to the story and the overall picture of the variety of a 21st-century metropolis.
The character that gets more print space is Vance, the ruthless hedge-fund manager. Some of his chapters were difficult to follow because Faulks includes explanations of how certain financial products work and the reasons behind the financial crisis. Parts were hard to grasp for a non-experts like myself, but it was still a fascinating glimpse into an unknown world that has such a wide impact. I’m still left with many questions about the mechanics of hedge-funds and toxic assets, but Faulks did a great job in making reads “get a feeling” for the scope of what is going on, the complexity, the manipulation, the irresponsibility, but also the powerlessness of those of us not in the game.
There are some hard topics in A Week in December, so I was surprised that it also made me laugh, all thanks to my favorite character: Ralph Tranter, or, RT. He alone would make this novel worth while. RT’s a failed novelist who writes contemptuous book reviews of anything remotely contemporary, with a mix of snobbery and envy (“poor man’s Somerset Maugham“, “the man who put the ‘anal’ into ‘banality’“). He’s also the expert the chutney magnate hired to prepare him for meeting the Queen and the moderator of Vance’s wife bookclub.
He reads reviews by other authors “with the eye of a fund manager scanning market prices”. He writes “serious” reviews for known publications, and anonymous nasty ones for a satirical magazine.
His own specialty was the facetious, come-off-it review which invited the reader to share his opinion that the writer’s career had been a sustained con trick at the expense of the gullible book-buyer.
(I would not like to be a professional critic reviewing A Week in December…)
I really enjoyed the book, but feel that Londoners would take even more out of it. They’d probably recognize the real people Faulks used as an inspiration – I’m sure they exist. For those who’ve read it: what’s with the bicycle rider with no lights who keeps nearly knocking people over? Is it a private British joke I didn’t get?