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A LIFE'S WORK

SEBASTIAN FAULKS

 

 

We take a look back at some of the works of reading-group favourite Sebastian Faulks. With topics such as his wartime French trilogy, the study of psychiatry, and even a James Bond thriller, Faulks has shown the eclectic nature of his subject matter and proved that taking risks and avoiding a formula maintains popularity. 

As ever, we are indebted to our Directory reviewers for the following feedback on a selection of Sebastian Faulks' books. Unfortunately space limits the number of reviews we can publish in our magazine but you will find them all, in their entirety, here.

The Girl at the Lion d'Or

by Sebastian Faulks (Vintage)

978-0099774907 | £7.99 pbk | 256pp


girl at lion dorThe Girl at the Lion d’Or is the first of Faulks’ French trilogy, followed by Birdsong and Charlotte Gray. Set in Janvilliers, a small coastal town in Brittany in 1936, it captures the essence of a France in limbo, hoping for peace yet all too aware of the looming presence of World War II. Anne Louvet arrives at the dilapidated hotel of the title, keen to embark on a new life whilst hiding a traumatic past. She quickly becomes fixated with Hartmann, a local lawyer who lives with his wife, Christine. What ensues is a very intense portrayal of a passionate affair; all the more heartbreaking as we know it will be short-lived. In a relatively short novel, we see the joy and heartache of an illicit affair, the human cost of war, one man’s struggle with his conscience, and a society in a state of flux. Faulks is adept at weaving political and historical threads through the narrative of a love story, making the events seem more concrete and real for the reader. Not for lovers of high-octane action, it’s a delicate, beautifully written novel with engaging, realistic characters whose motivations would provoke a lively book group discussion. Often overshadowed by the praise lavished on its successor, Birdsong, I think this novel deserves another chance to shine.

 

Teresa Majury


Personal Read: Five Stars

Group Read: Four Stars

 

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Birdsong

by Sebastian Faulks (Vintage)

978-0099528388 | £7.99 pbk | 528pp


birdsongBirdsong is one of my all- time favourite books. It is an extremely powerful, historical novel which leaves the reader thinking about the story long after the reading is over. The novel follows the story of Stephen Wraysford and opens with Wraysford’s time in Amiens before World War I and his love affair with Isabelle, the wife of a rich, French industrialist. The next section deals with Wraysford’s experiences as a captain during World War I; the horrors of the Battle of the Somme and the little known story of the men who dug a system of communications tunnels in the trenches. The last section involves Elizabeth, Stephen’s granddaughter, in the 1970s. Birdsong is part of Faulks’ France trilogy (the other books in the trilogy being The Girl at the Lion D’Or and Charlotte Gray – both fantastic books themselves). All of Faulks’ books are great novels, but Birdsong is considered by many to be his best. It has been adapted into a brilliant play that I was lucky enough to see; the story works very well on the stage. I think that everyone should read Birdsong at some time during their lives. I feel it is one of the most readable and memorable accounts of the First World War ever written; a period of history that should never be forgotten.

 

Jane Peplar


Personal Read: Five Stars

Group Read: Five Stars

 

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Charlotte Gray

by Sebastian Faulks (Vintage)

978-0099394310 | £7.99 pbk | 512pp


charlotte grayAfter the first 300 pages I finally found my perseverance was worth the wait. Faulk’s description of the horror of the French people’s torment under Nazi German invasion captivated my thoughts and touched my heart. The book evoked feelings of such intense emotion that I realised I was crying. I initially found it difficult to conjure up interest in Charlotte’s character, so her efforts to help the war and save her loved ones were necessary to show her determination, her will to succeed, and the depths she would go to for a love made strong by faith. My favourite character was Julian’s father Levade. I loved his speech (pp 303–4) regarding his faith and found him inspiring, a breath of hope in the death of the country’s dreams and previous normal life.

 

Marion Shepherd


Personal Read: 2 Stars

Group Read: 2 Stars

 

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Sebastian Faulks © Geraint Lewis/Writer Pictures

A Week in December

by Sebastian Faulks (Vintage)

978-0099458289 | £7.99 pbk | 352pp 

 

week in decemberThe novel follows events in the lives of seven main characters over the seven days leading up to Christmas 2007: John Veals, hedge-fund manager, Spike Borowski, professional footballer, Jenni Fortune, driver on the Circle Line, Gabriel Northwood, lawyer, Ralph Tranter, book reviewer, Hassan al-Raschid, young Asian student and Finbar Veals, sixteen-year-old son of the aforementioned John, deeply into drugs and reality TV. Intricate plotlines explore and manipulate the connections, collisions and evasions between these main characters, and with attendant minor characters inhabiting their lives, highlighting contrasts of hilarity and despair, ruthlessness and pathos, glamour and ugliness. The author increases the tension with each chapter, and one of the strands emerging is an implied comparison between two types of modern ‘terrorist’: the unprincipled high-living financier and the young, misled Islamic dissident. Faulks’ mastery as a writer does not fail him in this novel. The waspish satire is skilfully presented, but as an admirer of his more lyrical earlier works I experienced this as a new direction in Faulks’ writing, and one not to my taste. The only two of the main characters about whom I cared were Hassan and Jenni, although it was impossible not to warm to Hassan’s immigrant, working-class parents, who are beautifully written. For me, then, this book, while ‘good in parts’, was less than enjoyable, but would, I believe, offer reading groups much to ‘chew over’. 

 

 Mollie Mayson-Simpson, Lancaster

 

Personal Read: 2 Stars

Group Read: Three Stars

 

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sebastian faulks

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sebastian Faulks © Geraint Lewis/Writer Pictures

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

 

Sebastian Faulks was born in 1953 in the village of Donnington in Berkshire. He was educated at Elstree School near Reading then at Wellington College, before studying English at Cambridge University. He spent the first year after university living in Bristol and working on a novel, but a year later began work as a teacher in a London private school. After this, he ran a book club which the Arts Council had set up to promote literary fiction. In 1979 he joined the Daily Telegraph as a junior reporter, while continuing to work at his novelistic ambitions in his spare time. His first published novel was A Trick of the Light in 1984. His journalistic career continued to flourish: he worked as a feature writer at the Sunday Telegraph, before becoming the Literary Editor at the Independent in 1986. Although his second novel The Girl at the Lion d’Or (1989) was a modest success, it was not until the widespread acclamation of his graphic portrayal of life in the trenches of World War I in Birdsong (1993) that he was able to concentrate all his energies on his writing. His books to date are: A Trick of the Light (1984); The Girl at the Lion d’Or (1989); A Fool’s Alphabet (1992); Birdsong (1993); The Fatal Englishman (1996); Charlotte Gray (1998); On Green Dolphin Street (2001); Human Traces (2005); Pistache (2006); Engleby (2007); Devil May Care (2008); A Week in December (2009); Faulks on Fiction (2011)

 

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A Fool's Alphabet

by Sebastian Faulks (Vintage)

978-0099223214 | £7.99 pbk | 288pp


fools alphabetThere are 26 chapters in this cleverly constructed novel each one named after a place corresponding to the letters of the alphabet and each revealing more about the life of the main character, Pietro. The novel moves around in time as well as in location... In fact each chapter reads as a set piece, as though the author were looking for a reason to write about Jerusalem in 1982 or Ibiza in 1966. At times it feels more like a set of short stories than a novel. As with his other books it is well written and there is no doubt that he is a very clever writer. Many of the descriptions of places are excellent... [but] for any readers new to Sebastian Faulks I would certainly not recommend starting with this novel.

 

Berwyn Peet

 

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Human Traces

by Sebastian Faulks (Vintage)

978-0099458265 | £7.99 pbk | 618pp


human tracesHuman Traces is a masterful novel about love, friendship, family, social class and, most of all, science. The book follows Thomas and Jacques, two friends looking to shape the relatively new field of psychiatry. Along with Thomas’s sister Sonia they establish their own clinic where they can care for their patients with compassion while at the same time being free to investigate madness and melancholia. Faulks has clearly researched his subject intricately and you never doubt the accuracy of the bleak portrait of the mentally ill in the 19th century. I found myself completely drawn into the story, where he manages to craft interesting characters with depth and personality as well as maintaining a narrative debate as to the origins of madness. The crux of the emerging disagreement between Jacques and Thomas is that of nature versus nurture and is still a valid discussion in psychiatry today. I very much enjoyed this book. It is the first Sebastian Faulks’ novel I have read and I will definitely be reading more of his work. The only word of caution to other readers would be that this is a long book and if you don’t have at least a passing interest in psychology it may prove hard going, although the debate flows as part of the narrative so Faulks makes it eminently readable. There are so many thought-provoking issues in this book it would make for a very lively and interesting debate for a book club. I would recommend this book to anyone looking for a challenging read which is expertly written and is as entertaining as it is informative.

 

Joanne Ashmore

 

Personal Read: Four Stars

Group Read: Five Stars


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Engelby

by Sebastian Faulks (Vintage)

978-0099458272 | £7.99 pbk | 352pp


englebyFirst published in 2007 this novel takes the form of a diary kept by Mike Engleby from his university days in the 1970s, through his career as a journalist to the present day. As the narrator, Engleby controls completely what the reader sees and knows. We gradually piece together a picture of a highly intelligent loner who feels intellectually superior to others but is unable to relate to them. We learn of his violent father who beat him and about the extreme bullying he endured at boarding school. Gradually the reader follows Engleby’s obsession with Jen, a fellow undergraduate who has a great zest for life. Her sudden disappearance triggers a fifteen-year investigation by the police, which reaches its conclusion towards the end of the narrative. The novel is brilliant in the way it portrays a damaged individual who is managing to live in the everyday world but only just. The diary hints at memory losses, sudden rages and panic attacks, and describes Engleby’s reliance on alcohol and drugs. Faulks presents a convincing portrayal of obsession while entertaining the reader with a blackly humorous and detailed view of 1970s’ Britain. The book poses many questions about the human condition but also succeeds as a nail-biting page- turner full of suspense. I couldn’t put it down.

 

Gwen Major


Personal Read: Five Stars

Group Read: Five Stars

 

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