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.

30 July, 2014

July recipe: Fried mackerel fillet with gooseberry sauce

Fried mackerel fillet with gooseberry sauce

July is peak season for gooseberries. They are traditionally used in desserts and preserves, and I’ve previously posted recipes for gooseberry fool, gooseberry jam, and gooseberry pie.

Gooseberries can also be used in savoury cookery.  Their sharp sweetness goes especially well with pork or oily fish such as mackerel.

Here’s a quick and simple recipe for fried mackerel fillets with a sweet and sour gooseberry sauce, ideal for dinner on a summer evening.

Fried mackerel fillet with gooseberry sauce (serves 2)

2 fillets of fresh mackerel
1 Tablespoon (1 x 15 ml spoon) olive oil
1-2 shallots, or half a small onion
4 oz (approx 125 g) fresh gooseberries
1 teaspoon (1 x 5 ml spoon) demerara sugar
1 Tablespoon (1 x 15 ml spoon) lemon juice
1 Tablespoon (1 x 15 ml spoon) cider vinegar or white wine vinegar
1 Tablespoon (1 x 15 ml spoon) chopped fresh herbs (I like mint, sage, or oregano, or a combination thereof)

Peel and chop the shallots or onion.

Top and tail the gooseberries (this means cutting off the stalk at one end and the remains of the flower at the other).

Fry the onion or shallot gently in olive oil for a few minutes until softened.  Add the gooseberries and continue to cook gently for another few minutes until the gooseberries have produced some juice.

Add the sugar, lemon juice, vinegar and chopped herbs. Season with salt and pepper.  Mix well.  Leave the sauce to simmer, uncovered, over a low heat while you fry the mackerel fillets.

Melt a knob of butter in a frying pan over a moderate heat.

When the butter is melted and starting to foam, make sure it is spread out over the bottom of the frying pan and put the mackerel fillets in, skin side down. Fry the fillets for about 3 minutes.

Turn the mackerel fillets over and fry the other side for 2-3 minutes.  The flesh should be opaque and a knife should slide in easily.

Remove the mackerel fillets from the frying pan, transfer to a plate, and pour the gooseberry sauce over them.

Serve with new potatoes and salad or a green vegetable of your choice.