Sebastian Faulks’s new novel is ambitious, entertaining and delightfully vicious in its assault on literary hacks. If only he could make us care just a little moreby Julian Evans / August 27, 2009 / Leave a comment
A Week in December By Sebastian Faulks (Hutchinson, £18.99)
The old-fashioned skill of writing novels seems in Sebastian Faulks’s case to have got more Greenean as he has got older: the sense, with each new book, of the writer boarding a moving train, on each occasion timing the jump with an improving carelessness, then settling into an available seat or strolling through the carriages, narrating the lives of the passengers and witnessing everything that occurs.
Why is this old-fashioned? Because it’s a skill that makes an explicit pact with the reader: the novelist, writing for private reasons, understands that the loyalty of his readers is found on the public footpaths of adventure, romance, conflict, entertainment. In Faulks’s case, it has produced a disarming novelist. He makes it look easy because he has worked hard at the aspects of his style that compel attention—at that nonchalance and narrative magnetism.
He did not start out that way. His first two novels were rejected and the third, A Trick of the Light (1984), is out of print. The next, The Girl at the Lion d’Or (1989), is more admired with hindsight, in the wake of the worldwide success of Birdsong (1993). After Charlotte Gray (1998) and On Green Dolphin Street (2001), two successful mixtures of insouciance and popular drama, came a hiatus. The novelist seemed to want to add intellect to storytelling: Human Traces (2005), a 19th-century epic about the science of madness, took 600 pages and five years to emerge. Stresses show in its self-consciousness—but his contention that intellectual force could coexist with narrative simplicity was proven by his disturbing and bleakly funny first-person mystery, Engleby (2007), about a student misfit who becomes a murderer and successful journalist. His enduring interest in mental illness is an unusual counterpoint to the cut-and-dried dramas of his plots.
Last year, there was an entertaining aside in the form of a centenary piece of James Bond merchandising, Devil May Care: Faulks was appointed to the task by the Fleming estate, one imagines, for precisely the same railroad qualities of event and momentum. Now, not much more than a year later, we have the latest Faulks train ride. And, in A Week in December, he has set himself an unexpected test. His critics have held it against him that his themes have not been TS Eliot’s “now and England,” but a past of seductive nostalgia and…