A Week in December, By Sebastian Faulks

The nation is in a sad state, reckons Sebastian Faulks
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The Independent Culture

For all his success, or perhaps as a result of it, Sebastian Faulks possesses a resolutely cynical approach to writing. His novels have pace, drama, suspense and often a clear vision of time and place. Yet, for the most part, they take a traditional form, then refine it to the market's desire. Birdsong, his master-piece, came in the wake of numerous Great War classics. Likewise, there were plenty of tales of the French resistance before Charlotte Grey took up arms, and unreliable confessions ahead of Engleby's shifty tale.

It is for this ability to polish a literary mainstay that Faulks got the Bond gig last year. Devil May Care was an expert piece of Fleming ventriloquism. So it's no surprise to find him taking on the tried and tested state-of-the-nation novel here. A Week in December spins a web of narratives, using a broad cast of characters, over seven wintry London days in 2007. This "six degrees of separation" structure allows for commentary on the many scummy distractions of the Noughties.

Three characters remain key. A young, sad barrister, Gabriel, is the story's moral compass: resolved to a half-life of worrying about his schizophrenic brother and lack of cases. Meanwhile, Hassan, the son of a Muslim pickle-and-poppadom magnate, falls under the sway of an extremist terror cell. Yet Hassan isn't the baddie. Fittingly, that role falls to the hedge-fund manager, John Veales, a number-cruncher intent on accruing a fortune by undermining the value of the pound. Well, I think that's what he's doing. The fiscal detail will confuse anyone outside the City.

Faulks asks what modern life offers in the form of nourishment to the soul and intellect. The answer? Slim pickings. Hassan and Gabriel are essentially looking for the same thing: an identity that has both value and purpose.

Producing such a fractured narrative arrangement is a plate-spinning exercise. Too long on one character and your interest wanes in the others; too little and you merely sketch the individual. Faulks falls into the latter trap. Too often characters seem like cogs for the story's motor or for some self-indulgence. For instance, the tale of Tranter, a bitchy book reviewer, is little more than a case of score-settling against literary hacks. He's funny, in a vitriolic way, but no more than a literary finger flip. Likewise, the exploration of the Koran's place in western life seems forced.

However, there are two moments in this otherwise workmanlike novel that truly hit home. The first is when Veales' son, Finn, freaks out on skunk, a spliff riff that nails our empty obsession with altered states, whether drug-induced or found through the virtual realms offered by technology. Finn realises he wants to "un-smoke it, go back to what as a child he'd called 'true life'". At its best, this book is an old-fashioned call to retrace our path, return to a more connected existence.

The second incident underlines Faulks' understandable horror at the inability of our financial institutions to defer gratification. At a political shindig in honour of the lords of the Square Mile, the prime minister commends the tenacity of their quicksand economics. "What you have done for the City of London," he announces, "we now intend to do for the entire British economy." We all know how that panned out.