Book Reviews

A Week in December- Sebastian Faulks
The Afghan- Frederick Forsyth

A Week in December by Sebastian Faulks (2009)

My closest friends know my love-hate relationship with contemporary fiction, even though I read copious amount of the same. I also probably review around 1/500th of the books which I read, all scattered in the virtual world under various nom de plume du jour. Two reasons prompted me towards purchasing Sebastian Faulks’ ‘A Week in December’: I was attending the Hay Festival Trivandrum where there was the possibility a book-signing; I was in London during the very week (16th- 22nd December) which serves as the timeline.

‘A Week in December’ is unique and non-monotonous, a thinly-veiled London-centric satire and a veritable portrayal of stark reality, presented raw and crude, and demonstrated through an ensemble of distinct characters (primary and secondary) over a period of seven days. During this time span and via distinctive plotlines, one gets to know the nitty-gritty of each character (from various walks of life, ethnicities, and levels of society) and their lives in the multicultural London of 2007 (in fact, it is likely that one would recognise similar characters in their own circle of acquaintances – for I certainly did!). Each character, albeit with little in common, are consciously or unconsciously, connected to the other- their lives overlapping and interlinking in what is evocative of the real life and its six degrees of separation (the irresponsible cyclist is a common thread as is the dinner hosted by Sophie and Lance Topping on the Saturday featuring many of the primary characters from various strata of society).

Society and human nature are blatantly presented, devoid of makeup and airbrushing. In fact, the author could be mistaken for a psychologist for so deftly has he captured the characters and their thought processes, including their existence in bubbles to escape the realities of life (whether it be via the virtual world, usage of skunk, obsessive market trading, perversion of religion, reminiscing about a past lover, indulging in 19th century literature, and even schizophrenic thoughts).

An array of contemporary subjects are addressed, often in detail: banking and finance (including insider deals, trading, hedge funds, and the blind spots of FSA); book clubs, book prizes, literary critics; old wealth and the nouveau riche; deterioration of the British education system (comprehensives and public schools); computer games, reality TV, and recreational drugs; jihadis and home-grown terrorism; religion, love, marriage, and dysfunctional families; Celebs, WAGs, socialites, social climbers, politicians, artists, footballers, lawyers, tube drivers, confused teens/students….the list goes on.

The finale was abrupt and inconclusive- what else could be expected within a week? More fireworks would have been irritably melodramatic and tying up loose ends is not representative of real life!

As for other pros and cons:
The style of writing was refreshing and easily comprehensible, with subtle descriptions hidden amongst the words, all contributing towards enabling the reader to visualise the scenes.

Doubtless, the novel will resonate with someone familiar with life in London. Yet, if all London and/or British references are excised, the plot is pertinent to other urban cities.

Perhaps to escape being slammed with a libel case, Faulks rechristened companies (‘Goldbag’- Goldman Sachs; ‘Moregain’ -Morgan Stanley) and individuals- but some clever thinking should unmask this (methinks I know who the partners of Gabriel’s law firm are).

Yet, there is a degree of stereotyping and a healthy dose of preventable patronising. Certain subjects might be offensive for some, but a near accurate portrayal of life and broken society is bound to be politically incorrect (regardless of whether one likes it or not).

A dominant focus is on the world of hedge funds and its wheeling-dealing. I wouldn’t be surprised if the layman phases out upon reading Faulks’ regurgitation of technical and financial matter. But, admittedly, this would be how hedge fund managers communicate, think, and work. Yet, it would be inane to conclude that all/most investment bankers and/or hedge fund managers are of the John Veals (head of a hedge fund) ilk. Ergo, I disliked the excessive trashing of the investment banks/hedge funds and I suppose that Faulks spoke via former corporate lawyer Roger Malpasse’s rant at the dinner.

Some of the dialogues and ‘thoughts’ were rather unnatural and not attributable to the characters concerned (more like Faulks speaking!). Furthermore, the dialogues had a homogenity in sentence construction- a talented author would have adapted the dialogue of each character to make it unique.

The characters were quite lifeless, one-dimensional, sans definite depth, with the exception of John Veals and his collaborators, his wife, literary reviewer Ralph Tranter, the barrister Gabriel Northwood, and his schizophrenic brother Adam. The romance between Gabriel and Jenni Fortune, the train driver, seemed rather improbable and devoid of emotions. And whilst it was easy to visualise all scenes, I couldn’t participate and remained as an observer.

A blatant error was that whilst many of the characters met each other again at the dinner, there is no mention about whether they conversed or recognized the other (with the exception of Veals and Olya).

Yet, when I think of the ‘sushi conveyor belt in that Knightsbridge place’ with Veals and Martin Ryman deep in discussion, I wistfully wonder whether they were the strangers sitting adjacent to me at this favourite haunt of mine- the ones who ran up a bill around £150.

Bottom-line: Entertaining, absorbing, easy to read novel, with good (and plentiful) subplots and a subtle satire which makes one burst into laughter (especially as regards retrogressive intellect of humans and backstabbing amongst the literary circles). It is a mind-opener, providing too many insightful facts and practicalities of life to ponder upon. But I wonder whether Faulks is having a nice laugh at all those captivated by the novel- there isn’t much difference between such readers and those fixated upon soap operas and reality shows such as ‘It’s Madness’.

- Mark the page which lists Sophie Topping’s table plan- a very useful piece of reference!
- Read one chapter (i.e one day) per day, like I did. Reading it in one go might be a tad too overwhelming.

Cheeky tip: Present this to your banker friend (admittedly, I wouldn’t be surprised if someone presents it to me).

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The Afghan by Frederick Forsyth (2006)

Having read Frederick Forsyth’s works over the past 15 years, I have been significantly impressed by their characteristics which make them distinct from other thrillers. In fact, if I were to rate contemporary writers of thrillers, I would assign a 9/10 for Forsyth.

I recently bought The Afghan (2006)- mainly because it featured the protagonist from The Fist of God (1994), one of Forsyth’s best characters. The Afghan is a stand-alone and one is not required to have a prior knowledge of The Fist of God. The plot revolves around the British and American intelligence agencies fortuitously catching wind of an impending and calamitous operation, codenamed Al Isra, by the AQ. Their research on Al Isra comes up with naught, and they make a perilous gambit in order to get insider information: having one of their own infiltrate into the higher echelons of AQ. Finding such an individual is like seeking for a needle among the haystack.

A slip of tongue by SOAS academic Dr Terry Martin leads them to his brother Mike Martin, a retired SAS Colonel in his mid 40s who has clocked 25 years of active service. Martin is a perfect mole- a patriotic Englishman, born and brought up in Iraq, and a background of having conducted critical operations in the Falklands, Ireland, Kosovo, Iraq (during Operation Desert Shield and to run an Iraqi spy ‘Jericho’- as elaborated in The Fist of God) and Afghanistan. He is also fluent in Arabic, knows passable Pashto, is well versed in the Middle Eastern culture, and more importantly, has the physical characteristics of his maternal Indian grandmother. Martin, whom we find spending his retirement days converting a old barn into a habitable dwelling, succumbs to the prospect of more thrill, just like he chose his career over his marriage. Martin is to impersonate the famed Izmat Khan, a senior commander of the Taliban, currently languishing in Guantanamo Bay (and refusing to talk all thanks to his burning hatred for the country which obliterated his village along with his young family), and with his credentials infiltrate into the AQ.

I wish not to provide a detailed synopsis of the novel, but I would gladly recommend it as a good read for those who are new to the genre or to Forsyth’s works. The writing style is mainly documentary and cynical, as befits the subject. Detailed information, sometimes technical, is provided so that anyone could understand the plot (on modern-day technology, insights into espionage, Afghanistan’s war-riddled history, AQ’s formation and history, the difference between Islam and Wahabbism, AQ’s worldwide recruitment). The reader is able to study the main characters and deduce what truly drives their past, present, and future decision-making, and evaluate their lives being woven into real world events. There aren’t too many detailed depiction of violence (you’ll have to use your imagination). The reader finds themselves an observer, wherever the scene might be set- in fact, there is a very blurred line between fact and fiction. I also loved the snippets of poetry and would have appreciated more. 

However, the book has quite a few errors (as pointed out by other reviewers), including a few contradictions all of which one wouldn’t expect in a work of Forsyth. Were these made deliberately? Furthermore, around halfway into the novel, one got the impression that Forsyth got tired of writing and just wanted to wind up his opus. There are holes in the plot, dependence on assumptions, and the characters remain one dimensional (all that one can conclude is that Mike is closed and emotionally detached whilst Izmat has a life riddled with tragedies).

The plot also heavily relies on coincidences (some being practically improbable) which are downers: it turns out that Martin had met a young Izmat Khan when the former was attempting to reach the Mujahideen resistance in Afghanistan who were fighting the Soviets. And Martin had practically saved his life twice. Later on, Izmat Khan’s implausible escape, ‘The Sheikh’ remembering the brief encounter with the teenage Khan and the exact conversation he had with him from years ago, and the AQ deciding on Martin’s fate as a participant/observer for the top-secret Al Isra itself, the vagueness of what Al Isra entailed until the very end … the list goes on. Admittedly, there was no need for the pseudo-Khan to be included in this operation as a steersman on a tanker traversing many seas as opposed to other AQ operations which may have had need of his expertise- his input during the entire Al Isra was practically nil and unnecessary. It would have been more credible had Martin infiltrated AQ in their lair itself and gleaning information about Al Isra.

There are other impossible scenarios, the blatant one being the G8 summit being held in a luxury liner traversing the Atlantic and this plan not being scrapped despite getting information of an AQ threat from the sea. The rustic Afghan also seems to adapt well to international air-travel masquerading as a well-dressed Arab businessman. Another instance was Martin passing the rigorous physical examination aimed at checking out his identity- had he been an Afghan, surely he wouldn’t have western dental fillings (unless these were gifted at G-Bay and would have been circumcised?

I was also irked by the glaring dissimilarities between the Mike Martin of The Fist of God and the Mike Martin of The Afghan, least of these being that he was born in around 1955 in the first book and five years later in the second book.

The climax was an anti-climax (although probably realistic given the circumstances), I would have definitely preferred an alternative ending. I would have also preferred a detailed plot with flawless research and better proof-reading- but perhaps I am asking for too much.

Try not to compare this with his past works- for it falls miserably (although better than The Icon). But when compared to other works in the same genre, it is a good, gripping, and enjoyable thriller which you wouldn't put down until you complete reading it. And should Forsyth pen an improved The Afghan, I would be happy to buy it. I wouldn’t mind another sequel featuring Martin as well.

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