London in 2008: a city of conspicuous consumption and financial whizz-kids with million pound bonuses in their sights. A city with an underbelly of political refugees and embryonic terrorists. A city that relies on a stream of incomers from Eastern Europe to satisfy its needs for nannies, plumbers and builders.
John Lanchester‘s Capital is a state of the nation novel in which the lives of a group of disparate individuals intersect through their association with one fictitious street in a highly desirable part of the city
Pepys Road has undergone a transformation since the late 19th century when the houses were built for lower middle class families; respectable, aspirational people who worked as clerks for solicitors and bankers. Now they’re occupied by people like Roger Young, an investment banker, and his self-centered shopaholic wife for whom “…. Having a house in Pepys Road was like being in a casino in which you were guaranteed to be a winner. If you already lived there, you were rich. If you wanted to move there, you had to be rich.”
From the beginning of the novel it’s clear that TROUBLE lurks in this residential Eden. A mysterious hooded figure is seen surreptitiously filming the houses. Soon the inhabitants each receive an anonymous postcard bearing the simple message: “We Want What You Have”. More postcards follow, then videos begin dropping through the letterbox. All bear the same mysterious message.
Who is behind the campaign? Lanchester provides a host of candidates from Pakistani newsagents and Polish builders to au pairs from Eastern Europe and a political refugee from Zimbabwe who tramps the neighbourhood issuing parking tickets using a forged work permit. They’re all outsiders who are trying to establish a foothold for themselves and make a new life in England.
If they’re not having an easy time of it neither are the insiders. Roger’s hopes of bagging a million-pound bonus enabling him to sustain two homes, expensive cars and endless home improvements look increasingly precarious. Olive, an octogenerian who’s lived in the street all her live, discovers she has an inoperable brain tumour. And the Kamal family who run the newsagents on the corner have to contend with two unwelcome visitors. The friend from the past who flirts with Islamic fundamentalism is bad enough. But far worse is the annual visit by ‘Mother’ for whom nothing her sons and daughter-in-law can do, can ever be good enough.
We get to know them through more than 100 short chapters each of which takes us into the mind of a different character and shows us a different side of the city. It’s a narrative style that pushes the concept of the omniscient narrator to its extremes.
One moment we’re walking the streets with Quentina the traffic warden, contending with irate householders who can’t understand why, having paid a multi million pound price tag to buy the house, they have to pay even more for the right to park outside at any time they choose. The next we’re exploring the neighbourhood with the father of a young footballing whizz kid from Senegal and experiencing his bafflement at seeing a city filled with people in constant motion. “Even when they weren’t doing anything they were walking dogs, or going to betting shops, or reading newspapers at bus stops or listening to music through headphones or skateboarding along the pavement or eating fast food….” And then suddenly the focus changes to the perspective of a young religious zealot surrounded by “…women whose breasts were almost fully visible under , over, or through their thin summer clothes. Alcohol everywhere.”
As a commentary on the turbulent nature of London on the eve of the financial crisis, it works far more effectively than Sebastian Faulks‘ A Week in December which tried to cover much of the same ground but ran out of steam long before the final pages. An enjoyable read in many respects with some well drawn characters ( my favourites were Quentina the traffic warden and Roger the investment banker) but I’m not exactly sure what point Lanchester is trying to make.
In the prologue, the narrator reflects that “Britain had become a country of winners and losers.” It’s easy to see who the losers are in the novel; there is more than one character whose status and wealth have diminished by the end of the novel, or whose dreams have collapsed. The winners are less clear to see – one of the characters finds love by showing that he’s an honest man and another resolves to seize the chance given to him to change his life for the better. As for the others, without giving away secrets, all I can say is that one of them faces jail and another deportation.
If Lanchester’s mission is to merely to observe and convey a microcosm of life in one small corner of London, then he succeeded. But I wish he’d gone further and given some indication of what he saw as some of the underlying forces at work in this society and whether the factors that influence his characters’s behaviours are ones that present increasing concern. In short, I wish he’d come down from his perch on the fence. His book would have been all the stronger.