Monday, 27 April 2015

Capital, by John Lanchester

It's not so very often that you come across a book that offers keenly observed characters, a forensic analysis of the rise of wealth among the banking classes, a commentary on immigration from the point of view of a variety of immigrants, an insight into the worlds of football and contemporary art and much more besides - and does it all with lashings of warmth and humour. Capital, by John Lanchester, is all of that - and it's lovely and long (well, it would be, to offer all that) - so you can really sink into it. The humour reminds me a bit of J G Farrell's The Siege of Krishnapur, and the range and readability call to mind Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy.

It tells the story of a number of the inhabitants of Pepys Street, a road in London with houses originally built for lower middle class Victorians, but now available only to those with at least a million to spare. In the first few pages there is a brief history of the road and its fortunes which serves as the most concise history I've yet seen as to to how the property market in London has got into its present absurd state, where it must be almost impossible for anyone doing an ordinary job to get onto the ladder. (NB I don't live in London, but I know people who do!)

One of the first people we meet is Roger Yount, a high-earning but not terribly competent banker, with a wife, Arabella, whose chief occupation and obsession is spending money. Along the road is Petunia Lowe, the only inhabitant of the street who has lived there all her life: a sweet old lady with an exuberant garden and a house stuck in a fifties time-warp. Then there are the Kamals, who run the corner shop: three brothers, the eldest of whom has a wife and two children. They live in dread of their mother coming to visit from Lahore - but actually, when she turns up this time she puts her stubborn, cantankerous, manipulative nature to excellent use when she defends her middle son from a ridiculous terrorism charge. Another of the houses is owned by a football executive, but lived in at the moment by his club's newest signing, an incredibly talented seventeen-year-old from Senegal called Freddy - and his father, who is determined to support his son but longs desperately for his home, his wife and daughters, and is bewildered by the British climate, food and language.

Then there are the associated characters: a Polish builder called Zbigniew; a beautiful Hungarian nanny called Matya; Petunia's grandson, Smitty, a very savvy artist; Quentina, traffic warden and courageous illegal migrant from Zimbabwe - and oh, so many more. I wouldn't say all human life is here, but there's certainly a good cross-section of all London life.

The inhabitants of Pepys Road have something else in common apart from sharing the same post code; they have all recently started receiving mysterious postcards, bearing the motto: I want what you have, and photographs of their front doors. The campaign escalates - but this isn't a story about a crazed criminal or a serial killer or blackmailer: it's much more subtle than that, having to do with the more ubiquitous quirks of human nature.

This is a book about ordinary lives, but it has immense scope. It says a lot about the state of the UK today, but it also says a great deal about life, death, morality and struggle. And it makes you laugh. Marvellous!

I know the friend who recommended it seldom ventures into the world-wide web, so probably won't see this - but all the same: thanks, Steve.


  1. You make me want to read it, Sue!

  2. Glad to have this recommendation…I'd slightly be avoiding it after reading another review which suggested it was overly schematic. I think his LRB economic pieces are fantastically readable, and have had 'Whoops' waiting to be read for far too long.