31 July, 2014

Capital, by John Lanchester. Book review

Faber and Faber 2013. ISBN 978-0-571-23462-2. 577 pages.

Set mainly in London in 2007-2008. All the main characters are fictional.

Capital follows a group of people who live or work in Pepys Road, an unexceptional (fictional) street in south London. The residents include a City banker and his wife, a Pakistani family who run the corner shop, a young African football star and his father, and an elderly widow. Those who work there include a Polish builder, a Hungarian nanny and a Zimbabwean traffic warden. All the residents start receiving mysterious postcards with a photograph of their house and the words ‘We Want What You Have’ printed on the back. Who is sending the postcards and what do they mean?

From the title, I expected this would be a book about the City of London and the finance world. It turned out to be much more varied and engaging than that, because although it does feature a City casino bank and some of the traders who work there, they are only a component of a large and varied cast. Each character or group of characters has their own plot. Some happen to cross each other’s paths as they encounter each other in Pepys Road, others never meet at all. So the book reads rather like a collection of interweaving short stories. The big plus of this approach is that there are lots of tales and characters to choose from; if one narrative doesn’t catch a particular reader’s imagination, another probably will. For me, I found Zbigniew the Polish builder, Matya the Hungarian nanny, the Kamal family, and Petunia the elderly widow and her daughter Mary the most appealing characters. Smug, complacent banker Roger and his shallow acquisitive wife Arabella deserve each other, and the football sub-plot largely passed me by (although I did sympathise with the homesick father). Other readers will no doubt have their own favourites.

Capital doesn’t have an overall plot as such. The ‘We Want What You Have’ postcards form a sort of loose thread on which to hang the individual plots, but the ‘mystery’ and its eventual resolution seemed a bit incidental. This didn’t matter for me, because the individual plots were engaging enough in their own right to keep me turning the pages to find out what happened next. I did find I tended to skim the chapters about the characters I found less interesting and to hurry forward until the book came back to someone I was more interested in, but that always happens in a book with multiple sub-plots.

The writing style is warm and humane, easy to read and often wryly funny. The characters may occupy stereotypical roles – the public-school banker, the Polish builder, the Asian shopkeepers – but they are all distinct individuals, with their own relationships, dilemmas and human foibles. Even the ghastly characters have some good points.

Entertaining, easy read about a diverse group of people living and working in London just before and after the 2008 financial crash.


Gabriele Campbell said...

I browsed that (German translation) a few weeks ago when I looked for a birthday present for my father. Eventually I decided for a mystery set in Berlin in the 1930ies which he liked. I thought you'd maybe need to care about London and know a bit about it, to appreciate that book fully and so decided it was not a perfect fit for my father.

Rick said...

Recent history!

How much does London figure as a setting and perhaps sort of a character? Perhaps the author was making a bit of a play on the word 'Capital'.

Rick said...

Recent history!

How much does London figure as a setting and perhaps sort of a character? Perhaps the author was making a bit of a play on the word 'Capital'.

Carla said...

Gabriele - I don't know whether you'd need to care about London as such. For what it's worth, what I liked about the book was the various people in it. London matters in the sense that its peculiar economy is what happens to have brought them all together, but as they are mostly transient - Petunia and the Kamal family are the only characters who have lived in Pepys Road for any length of time and have any particular connection to the area - the place itself is rather incidental. Some of the characters, like Zbigniew, explicitly consider that their 'real life' is elsewhere and that London is just temporary. It might be important to know a bit about London culture (e.g. the obsession with house prices).

Rick - yes, recent history indeed! Yes, I am sure the title is a deliberate play on the meanings of the word 'capital'. London is the major setting; almost everything happens there. I wouldn't say it acts as a sort of character, though - see my reply to Gabriele above. It's the set on which the cast of characters happen to meet, and you wouldn't get the same cast in a different setting, e.g. a novel set in a small provincial town might well have the elderly lady who's lived there all her life, the Polish builder and the Asian shopkeeper family, but it probably wouldn't have the premier league footballer or the concept artist, and it would likely only have the rich banker family at weekends now and then (and then only if it happened to be a fashionable place to have a 'weekend cottage'). So in that sense it's important, but I didn't pick up a sense of London itself as a sort of character in its own right. Not at all like Rutherford's novel New York, for example. Although to be fair, New York is set over a much longer period of time (400 years+) so the city is the thread of continuity, which is quite different to Capital set over only a year or two.