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Book review: Stephen Amidon reviews "A Week in December," by Sebastian Faulks

By Stephen Amidon
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, March 23, 2010; C02

A WEEK IN DECEMBER

By Sebastian Faulks

Doubleday. 392 pp. $27.95

Five pages into "A Week in December," Sebastian Faulks's engrossing portrait of London in 2007, the author provides an annotated guest list for the dinner party that many of his characters are scheduled to attend at the end of the book's seven-day span. Given the length and variety of that list, it is clear that the reader, too, is in for a multi-course feast. And while a few of the dishes Faulks serves turn out to be slightly undercooked, for the most part they are the work of a chef in fine form.

Among the invited guests is the book's most dynamic character, the surpassingly greedy hedge-fund manager John Veals, who is setting in motion a scheme that just might wreck the world's banking system. Also on the list is R. Tranter, an embittered book critic whose biography of an obscure Victorian novelist is up for a prize to be awarded the night before the dinner. Another person holding an invitation is Gabriel Northwood, a lonely barrister preparing for his first big court case in a long while.

Farooq al-Rashid, a relish manufacturer set to be honored by the queen that week, is also slated to attend. His son Hassan will not be at the table, however, because that is the night he is set to take part in a suicide bombing in London with three other young Islamist terrorists. Spike Borowski, a newly imported Polish soccer star, will also be there, provided he is not too worn out by his game that afternoon -- or by his girlfriend, whose nude photos are becoming something of an Internet sensation.

Much happens in the days leading up to the dinner. Northwood finds himself unexpectedly smitten with Jenni Fortune, a London Underground driver he is deposing as part of a wrongful death lawsuit after her train ran over someone. Veals's wife, Vanessa, is forced to deal with the psychotic break suffered by her 16-year-old son after he smoked hydroponic marijuana scored at a pet cemetery. And Farooq finds himself in a bit of a pickle when he learns that he is meeting Prince Charles, and not the monarch for whom he has been so assiduously preparing.

The book's most urgent story lines, however, involve Veals, the venal hedge-fund manager. He makes his play for the big score by starting a rumor about a venerable old bank. The resulting panic not only promises to line his already gilded pockets, but also threatens to create a global downturn that will result in unemployment, pension losses and even some sub-Saharan hunger.

Not that any of this bothers Veals, a remarkable creation who manages to be both compelling and repellant. "Somewhere in the passageways of John Veals's mind," the author tells us, "beyond the thoughts of wife, children, daily living, carnal urges, beyond the scar tissue of experience and loss, there was a creature whose heart beat only to market movements." Despite Faulks's big buildup, the Veals story line does not pay off for the reader quite as generously as it does for the banker himself. The author loads on too much detail about derivatives and global markets for this part of the narrative to have the thriller-like pacing it would need to achieve its lofty goal of depicting a world financial crisis in the making.

A similar problem afflicts Hassan's story. Although the would-be terrorist is a beguiling character -- the poor little rich boy who tries to build an identity from the politics of the dispossessed -- there is something rather improbable about the horrific plot in which he finds himself engaged. The members of the terror cell he falls in with never become credible characters, an omission that stands out sorely in such a richly human novel.

It is a testament to the book's manifold virtues that the fragility of these two story lines does not prevent "A Week in December" from being well worth reading. Ironically, its quieter subplots prove to be the most powerful. Gabriel's romance with Jenni is a masterful portrait of two forlorn souls finding a connection in the urban crush, while the thawing of Vanessa's icy, diamond-encrusted heart as she tries to help her long-neglected son is truly moving.

The book's central virtue, however, is its grand portrait of a city where the virtual is replacing the real, where Dickensian grit is being supplanted by the pixilated glow of millions of LED screens. Faulks's Londoners would rather inhabit online role-playing games than make human contact; they would rather relegate their favorite soccer players to fantasy teams than watch them play on the turf of the city's famous old grounds. Nowhere is this triumph of the virtual more apparent than in the banking sector, where profit "was no longer related to growth or increase, but became self-sustaining; and in this semivirtual world, the amount of money to be made by financiers also became unhitched from normal logic." With everybody glued so fast to their screens, it is little wonder people like Veals are stealing them blind.

Amidon's most recent novel is "Security."

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