Saturday, June 19, 2010

Review of the Day: A Week in December

A Week in December follows a loosely linked network of Londoners – most of them connected by an invitation to a fancy dinner party on Saturday night at the home of a new Member of Parliament – during the week before Christmas. While the core characters go about their lives, one plots an extravagant act of terrorism with the other members of his militant Islamic cell.

This structure is risky. The different threads could easily unwind into separate short stories and it is difficult to maintain the tension of the two main plots to a satisfactory conclusion. But Sebastian Faulks is a master. There is enough interweaving of the characters’ lives – many of the women are in the same book club, for instance – to keep the stories connected. And he skillfully handles the terrorism story line right to the end.

The device of following such a large cast allows Faulks to take on all of modern culture, examining contemporary literature, professional sports, unscrupulous investment bankers, modern parenting, reality television, corporate sponsorship of book awards, trends in education, and the business of art. Some of his digressions, such as his explanations of esoteric hedge fund transactions, show more enthusiasm for the subject than his readers may share, but overall he packs a lot of material into an entertaining package.

In particular, Faulks’s take on authors and the book business, through the eyes of the snarky, book reviewing Ralph Tranter, is hilarious. After a lackluster reception of his own novel, “R. Tranter” recreated himself as a trenchant, take-no-prisoners book reviewer. Some of his reviews are pithy masterpieces, such as “[p]oor man’s Somerset Maugham, with embarrassing improbabilities at key moments,” or “[c]ostive little stories that beg to be called significant,” or, best of all, “typical subcontinental, sub-Rushdie, look-at-me-aren’t-I-refreshing and tragically not copy-edited bollocks.” But the thing about Tranter is that he simply does not like anything written by a living author:

Crash was what he wanted: crash and burn – failure, slump, embarrassment, He liked it when acerbic youngsters teased established writers and he relished it when old pipe-suckers slapped down a lively newcomer. 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.

Despite his bristles, Tranter is one of the few likeable characters and one who, thankfully, gets what he deserves in the end.

Faulks takes a lot on in A Week in December. He manages the job with precision and honesty, and even if his hand is sometimes a little heavy, this is the best book to come off the presses in a long while.

Curled Up With a Good Book and a Cup of Tea

If you would like your review of this book, or any other Sebastian Faulks book, listed here, please leave a comment with a link and I will add it.

I got this book from the LibraryThing Early Reviewer program. Now that I finished it, I can scratch it off my list.

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