I spent a week in November reading (on and off, obviously) Sebastian Faulks’ excellent A Week in December. Faulks manages to take snapshots of characters and events that characterise something of the nineties and noughties in Britain.

A book to capture today's Britian

The tensions and comprehension gaps between a disillusioned young Muslim man – looking for some certainties and a place to belong – and his parents who have tried hard to assimilate and be accepted into British society is beautifully expressed. Even better is the lack of easy resolution: both end the book still not understanding the other and yet the need for human belonging has to find expression for both.

Many of the women in the book – wives of politicians, footballers and rich businessmen, for example – are depicted as casting around for love, identity and ‘place’. A literary critic shows up the superficial and personal nature of arts criticism: personal agendas and rivalries, jealousies and snobberies, all get exposed. There is a light shone on so many aspects of shallow culture that every page made me wince with both recognistion and embarrassment. Is this what we have really become?

The period covered is, however, epitomised by the character of John Veals, the high-finance money manipulator whose addictive lust is not for money itself (ironically, given his accumulation of the stuff) – and certainly not for his rather regretful wife and neglected children – but for the miserable pursuit of power and ‘winning’. Relationships mean nothing; the world is simply a playground for his exploitation; people are pawns in his trading games; rules are for breaking; laughter is for the sorts of people he despises. The final line of the book sends a chill through the soul as the sheer empty, vacuous, selfish and value-free monster of greed exposes what happens when you gain the whole world but lose your soul.

I guess Faulks could be accused of caricaturing the worst of contemporary Britain without depicting or exploring the best elements of a complicated multicultural society. But, you can’t do everything in a single book – and in this book he paints a picture which only the wilfully blind will fail to recognise. This picture begs many questions of what sort of society we really want Britain to develop in the next few years of the so-called ‘Big Society’… and that will form the subject of my next post.