Cities as crowded and cosmopolitan as London offer a wealth of stories, and the sheer density of people means that unlikely stories find a way to intersect.
Sebastian Faulks delivers an interesting mix of intersections over a few December days. We meet a socialite setting up a dinner party, concerned first and foremost with appearances. We don’t see much of her, but she’s the hub at which everyone else converges.
A hedge fund manager merely inhabits the same house as his family, and even then only rarely; his wife is vaguely unfulfilled, and his son seems not to do anything beyond smoking marijuana while watching bad reality TV.
A subway train driver whose humdrum existence is belied by her rich life online, is befriended by a lowly, not particularly ambitious lawyer who still pines over a long-ended affair, and dutifully visits his schizophrenic brother in a mental hospital.
We meet a Polish soccer player newly signed with a British team, trying to adapt to the team, the spotlight and the English language.
A Pakistani immigrant who made his fortune as a pickle magnate is oblivious to the increasing Islamic extremism of his son, who, we learn at the start, is gathering ingredients for bombs.
And a failed novelist has become a book critic whose greatest delight is the skewering of a novel praised by others; failing that, he’ll skewer any novel written by anyone living.
“A Week in December” is unfailingly well written, clear and insightful, and wickedly satirical in places. But as with any ensemble cast, so to speak, some of the lives are more interesting than others, and some of the characters necessarily get less attention.
The problem is that we get way more than we need about the hedge fund manager. The plot slows to a crawl when the book describes, in meticulous detail, the questionably legal financial transaction that he’s working on. Faulks used to be a journalist, and the deal is explained clearly, but as a plot in a novel it gets dull. And the character himself, like one of the main characters in the novel “Union Atlantic” earlier this year, is a soulless, greed-driven workaholic -- clearly, in the author’s eyes, worse than Hassan, the would-be suicide bomber.
Not that Hassan is sympathetic, but he’s young and easily influenced, and Faulks traces how a well-off, born-in-Britain young man turns down the path to violence.
Also worse than Hassan -- almost as bad as the hedge fund manager -- is the book critic. Faulks’ portrayal of R. Tranter as a pompous pedant is so scathing that one assumes there must be some bad blood somewhere. Tranter’s thread is among the funniest, though, simply because he’s one of those petty people who have no idea how petty they are, and the descriptions of his puffery and self-deception are spot-on. More seriously, the lawyer and the train driver discuss electronic interconnectedness and the nature of knowledge in conversations that only occasionally feel like a lecture, and even then a pretty interesting one.
When the week is up, most of the story lines are resolved, though not necessarily in the way we expect -- which is not a bad thing. Despite a little unevenness, “A Week in December” is a week well spent.