Sebastian Faulks’ tenth novel has been compared to Thackeray’s Vanity Fair and described as Dickensian in scope. However, some readers may be reminded of the 2005 film ‘Love Actually’ when reading this book. The different storylines about the lives and relationships of the various characters set against the background of a contemporary London in the run up to Christmas do give a sense of recognition. Thankfully, Faulks’ ‘state-of-the-nation’ novel is more intelligent and in-depth, critical and satirical than the aforementioned film and does not deserve this analogy at all. However, it does not deserve the comparison with the works of novelist and critic Dickens either.
The book spans seven days following the lives of a number of different Londoners who are in one way or another all connected to a Christmas charity dinner. The characters all come from different backgrounds: there is John Veals, the villain of the book: a cold and calculating rich hedge fund manager, his bored wife, their son who is addicted to marihuana, tube driver Jenni from Ealing, a young Polish footballer who just arrived in the UK, an unsuccessful lawyer from Chelsea, a Muslim with extremist views, a literary journalist with a fierce love for everything Victorian and a whole array of other characters surrounding them.
Faulks paints a comprehensive and diverse image of life in the first decade of the 21st century and at the same time criticizes and satirizes this life relentlessly: our obsession with money and religion, our vanity, contemporary art and the many forms of escapism available to us (drugs, Virtual Reality, reality TV). The book successfully captures the overwhelming cultural diversity of 21st century London and Faulks tries to incorporate a bit of everything.
However, it is this comprehensive nature, the multitude of storylines and characters, that is at the same time the book’s downfall. There are so many characters that it is hard for the reader to really empathize with any of them as they remain quite bland throughout. They cannot match the epic, larger than life characters from Dickens’ novels such as Fagin, Scrooge and The Artful Dodger. Because of this lack of round characters and a clear protagonist it is difficult to be drawn into the story and the reader remains merely a distant spectator.
The long, in-depth and almost academic descriptions of the workings of the financial world and hedge funds in particular (John Veals’ storyline) are perhaps a bit much to digest. Faulks did his homework when trying to explain the run-up to the economic downfall of 2008 and this shows, but I found myself skipping sections as the theory went over my head in places. In comparison to the other storylines this one is too elaborate, which is logical as it concerns the villain of the story, but it was out of proportion. Nevertheless, A week in December is diverse and comprehensive in nature: there’s something in it for everyone. It is a snap-shot of the time we live in and a very pleasant read. However, not one of Dickensian caliber.