‘How very strange they were, he thought, these people, that they had let eternal life slip through their hands.’ – A Week in December by Sebastian Faulks

April 29, 2010 at 1:26 am (Book review, books)

Sophie Topping, wife of a newly elected Member of Parliament, is planning a lavish dinner party. The guest list includes people from all walks of life. Among them are Spike Borowski, a Polish national who plays soccer for a British team; hedge fund manager John Veals and his wife Vanessa;  impoverished barrister Gabriel Northwood; Knocker al-Rashid, a successful entrepreneur, and his beautiful wife Nasim; and R. Tranter, an embittered writer whose lackluster career has fueled his spite and cynicism.

These are  all important characters, but one of the most important – crucial, one would say to this tale of contemporary London –  will not be attending the festivities. This is Hassan al-Rashid, son of Knocker and Nasim. Hassan is British born and raised, but now, in his early twenties, he  feels rootless and without direction.  He falls in with a group of young Muslim men whose love of Islam is coupled with a dismay at the world around them. They are deeply disillusioned by life in a country which, in their view, refuses to take itself seriously. The problem is not the “otherness” of the prevailing faith, but rather, the indifference of the populace to that faith:

‘It was Sunday, Hassan thought; most of these people should have been in church, but these days Christians viewed cathedrals as monuments or works or art to be admired for their architecture and paintings, not as the place where they could worship God. Their final loss of faith had happened in the last ten years or so, yet in the kafir [non-Muslim] world it had passed  with little comment. How very strange they were, he thought, these people, that they had let eternal life slip through their hands.

What a contrast  to Islam and the certainties it offers to believers. Or so it seems to Hassan and his new friends…

Hassan feels the need of such certainties more than ever. His parents, themselves observant Muslims, know that he is troubled. Despite their solicitousness and love, they have trouble penetrating to the source of his discontent. Nasim in particular mourns the loss of the “majestic intimacy” she once shared with her son. Both mother and father are anxious about Hassan, with good reason.

The al-Rashids stand in stark contrast with John and Vanessa Veals. The Vealses have two children, a daughter Bella and a son Finbar. Bella is barely mentioned; Finbar spends most of his time holed up in his room on the top floor, smoking dope and participating in a role-playing video game on his computer. This is the most atomized family unit imaginable. Its four members don’t seem to have any meals together- -in fact, they rarely even see one another. There’s a hilarious scene in which John Veals inadvertently encounters his son on the stairway of their house. For a moment they are trapped, trying to think what to say to each other. Then one of John Veals’s six – yes, six! – cell phones goes off, and the moment, along with the necessity of father and son communication, is over.

As a wheel-dealer in high finance, operating perilously close to the margin of the law, the John Veals character may be a bit over the top. Yet at the same time, the author provides a window into the way a mind like Veals’s works. The man is quite simply obsessed with making money, to a degree that is positively frightening.

This novel is being called a satire, but at times it is intensely serious and utterly free of irony. This is especially true when Hassan al-Rashid is at stage center. With what seems to me an extremely astute empathy,Faulks depicts what goes on in the mind of a young man tempted to go down a dangerous, destructive road in pursuit of an ideal – any ideal – that hovers dangerously close to fanaticism. What choice will Hassan make? It is this unknown that provides A Week in December with a degree of suspense that at times is downright excruciating.

Whether Sebastian Faulks is being ironic or serious, a sense of loss pervades this novel, a feeling that  the old verities have vanished and replaced by something less worthy. At Sophie’s dinner party, Gabriel is amazed by the high rollers on the scene, with their incessant chatter about matters financial.  He can’t help but wonder: “When had the civilized man stopped viewing money as a means to various enjoyable ends and started to view it as the end itself?” Sometime earlier during the week, Gabriel had been gazing out the window of his chambers down to where the Thames flowed by. He found himself reflecting on the ageless, timeless river that is the very embodiment of London and its turbulent history:

‘Swollen with December rain, it was gliding beneath the lights of the Embankment, under Blackfriars Bridge, above the embedded railway underpass, below Southwark Bridge and over the buried Cannon Street commuter lines–under, over, under, like a liquid weave, thought Gabriel, as it made its way through the old slums of Limehouse and Wapping, where watermen with lanterns in the bow had had once pulled bodies from the water, and on toward the sea–or at least to the tidal barrier at Woolwich, against which the swollen oceans were rising.

Nothing sentimental in this reverie – just a sense that for good or ill, the Thames flows on, transforming the present moment into the irretrievable past.

*******************************

I have a friend who used to tell me that science fiction was his favorite reading because the writers not only told stories but also grappled with ideas. In A Week in December, Sebastian Faulks most definitely engages with ideas. At the same time, he tells a gripping story – actually several  artfully interconnected stories –  and he creates a rich and vast panorama of a particular time and place. His characters are fully alive, and if some of them are a bit broadly drawn – John Veals and R. Tranter come to mind – others, like Gabriel Northwood and al-Rashids, possess a fund of genuine goodness. They call on the reader’s sympathies, and this reader, at least, responded in kind.

*****************************

I’ve read one other book by Sebastian Faulks. Birdsong is a love story set primarily during the First World War. I read it quite a while ago and I  recall enjoying it very much. That said, I think A Week in December is a more ambitious undertaking. It wasn’t perfect; there was a bit too much detail concerning complex financial transactions and the finer points of the game of soccer. My eyes glazed over at times… No, it was not perfect. But nevertheless, it was terrific.

Sebastian Faulks

3 Comments

  1. Pauline Cohen said,

    Roberta,

    I’ll look out for Sebastian Faulks’ latest book. I have read about 4 of his previous works and each of them is interesting in its own way. I read “Engleby” last (it was a while ago) and remember being puzzled by it. It’s a very different kind of novel with an unreliable narrator–if I remember accurately. I’ll have to re-read it and see what my reaction is this time. “A Week in December” sounds intriguing, and I plan to get to it when I can.

    Thank you for reminding me of this writer.

    Pauline

    • Roberta Rood said,

      Pauline,

      If I recall correctly, I was put off by some aspect of Engleby & didn’t get very far into it. But I jusy couldn’t put this latest one down!

  2. In Other Rooms, Other Wonders – a book discussion « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] by Mohsin Hamid The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga Secret Daughter by Shilpi Somaya Gowda A Week in December by Sebastian […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: