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A Week in December

Clare F Hobba

Sebastian Faulks
Hutchinson, 352pp, ISBN

FaulksHmm, a bit of a difficulty here. Sebastian Faulks really doesn't like critics to be rude about his work, as is plain in his characterisation of the obnoxious R Tranter, a man who plots to bring down the work of those authors of whom he is jealous. Luckily, my own feelings about A Week in December are not scathing - but then neither are they brimming with praise.  

By his own declaration, Faulks has attempted here, a 'state of the nation' novel, and has used the means of satire to do so. However, A Week in December rarely deploys broad humour and a number of the characters are sympathetic and engaging, including the trainee Islamic suicide bomber.  John Veals is the dark character at the centre of the book, a hedge fund manager whose only pleasure is that of  making money for its own sake. However there are also Spike, a star footballer from Poland; Finn, a teenager who is simultaneously privileged and neglected; Jenni, an Afro-Caribbean tube driver; and Gabriel, an impoverished young barrister. And so many more minor players. There are many disparate links between these people, and two structural devices offer the promise of a bringing together of the characters and a climax toward the end of the novel - the Islamic extremist plot to explode bombs within London and the expensive and ambitious dinner party being held by Sophie Topping.  

Faulks takes shots at a huge number of targets from modern Britain, including care in the community, reality TV, book prizes and cyberspace games, and gives a serious warning about the dangers of skunk marijuana and its potential to cause psychosis. However, it was his comparison of the Bible and the Qu'ran which raised a small storm even before the book's release. The following quotation is a good summary of what he says:

'"What a bastard,' [Gabriel] muttered under his breath from time to time. 'What a bastard…'

'He had always thought of the Old Testament as giving the most implacable and unsympathetic portrayal of a divinity. Jahweh, or Jehovah, the god of the Jews and their Exodus and their dietary laws and bloody battles against other Semitic tribes; Jahweh the god of exile, punishment, bloodshed, plagues and slaying of the firstborn…He had surely set a standard of intransigence. Yet compared to the Koranic divinity, he was beginning to feel, old Jahweh was almost avuncular.

'The god of the Koran brought with him neither the great stories of the Old Testament (though he referred back to them) nor the modern life-guide of the New.  What he did offer was his own words, ipsissima verba, mouthed by the Angel Gabriel, remembered and transcribed verbatim by the Prophet. And over nearly 400 pages, the principal message seemed a simple one: believe in me or burn for all eternity.  Page after page.'

Faulks is complementary to the ideals by which Jesus proposes we should live our lives, although he sums it up, a little simplistically as 'kindness'. However, before, as Christians, we preen too much, a late revelation in the book reveals that Faulks's opinion of prophets, be they Old Testament, New Testament or Muhammad himself is that the voices they heard were in their own heads, the product of psychosis.  

Faulks is not, however, damning of all religious believers: that fate is reserved for the malevolent hedge fund manager who serves only his own drive to make money and rejoices in the fact that he takes that money from thousands of others who need it in order to live. By contrast, the home of the al-Rashid family is happier than that of the Veals family because it has good values, extracted from the Qu'ran through the benevolent filter of Farooq al-Rashid's kindliness.

Considerable research has gone into this book, and I particularly admired the passages where Veals's devastating financial dealings are described in such a way that I almost (but not quite) grasp what he is up to. However, particularly in the first third of this book, research seems to be the enemy of convincing characterisation. Faulks can fall into the voice of a slightly patronising narrator, as when he tells us, 'Veals and Duffy always had code names for sensitive trades, just as an extra protection.' Frankly, we could have guessed that at the point, a moment previously, when they select a code name.

Several times in the description of characters early on, we get a taste not of their own preoccupations but of the reason for their inclusion by Faulks in his novel. These deficiencies are heightened by the contrasting comfort with which Faulks steps into the shoes of Gabriel Northwood, the penniless young barrister. Gabriel's observations are subtle and original rather than focusing on explaining his own cultural past. Faulks is happy to use him as his mouthpiece even to the unlikely extent of having him ponder Faulks's own preoccupation about whether a Brit could ever produce a novel which transcends individual circumstances to comment on the whole country like Updike, Bellow and Roth do in the USA. It is Northwood, too, who voices Faulks's views on the Qu'ran.

Monica Ali's In the Kitchen looked at London and the financial rot at its core through the microcosm of a kitchen. In A Week in December different characters, all representing aspects of the capital, descend on a London dinner party. As with the Ali book, the origins of the characters (Jewish, Polish, Afro-Caribbean, Pakistani-Glaswegian) draw in a far wider frame than just the London skyline, and yet, the book is very London-centric. Maybe that is because the capital is the locus where the near-criminal financial deals are done. However, as people in even the remotest corners of our country and of our world may attest, the actions of the financial dealers affect all of us. If any body out there is writing another great state of the nation novel, can more of the settings be in different regions please?

Clare F Hobba