Capital by John Lanchester

I always feel that with an established author whose latest book is hyped to oblivion that I should preface my review of said book by saying I have never read any of the author’s previous work. So, without further ado, I have never read any of John Lanchester’s previous works. I doubt it would really make much difference to my opinion of Capital, though maybe more familiarity with his writing style would have helped me to enjoy this new novel a bit more.

That’s not to say it was bad, far from it, but it was very dry. The blurb held promise of a novel about rich city dwellers being stalked in a sinister fashion but what occurred was a year in the life of the residents in Pepys road. The enjoyment of Capital will come from whether the reader connects with any of the residents. Lanchester does a superb job of building each member of the cast and even if they only appear sporadically, you feel you know them well.

Lanchester has structured his novel so that the narrative jumps between the houses of Pepys road, known for being one of the wealthiest streets in London. The houses here are worth millions. The book sets out from the opening pages to give us a snapshot of London, of how we live and how the world turns. It appears as if Lanchester is attempting to tell us what we already know, however. We know that migrant workers paint our houses, we know that city bankers roll in million pound bonuses and we know that African traffic wardens are racially abused in our streets.

This gives the novel a stereotypical feel and I often felt like I’d already heard this lecture. Thankfully Lanchester has given the novel enough interesting storylines and humorous moments to keep the narrative flowing. The cast is wildly different from each other, too, which keeps it fresh. There is no central protagonist, there is no storyline centrepiece, despite the “We Want What You Have” plot dangled in front of you from the get go. In fact that plot is lifeless and forgettable when compared to the human issues and stories present.

Standout stories for me are Petunia Howe, an old lady who has forever lived in 42 Pepys road and finds herself stricken with a brain tumour. Her tenderness and enjoyment of life’s simplicities is a joy to read. She has never changed with the effluence of money that surrounds her. She still has lino floors, Formica counters and chintz wallpaper. Her story, though short, is one brimming with emotion and sentiment. If anyone from Capital stays with me for months to come, it will be Petunia.

In contrast to Petunias basic life is Roger, an investment banker who makes millions each year but deep down yearns for something more. Roger’s story is more comedic and modern. He drapes himself in finery and sports the latest fashions. But, his life is utterly materialistic and as his life twists and turns we see him grow as a character.

Then we have the Kamals who (most stereotypically) run the corner shop – which is literally on the corner of Pepys road. The family dynamics here are brilliant and show the bickering dinner tables overflowing with spicy foods. They are also a gateway for Lanchester to tackle the subject and fear of terrorism.

I always believe that the best writers can generate real emotions from the reader towards their creations and where I loved Petunia and Roger, I loathed Roger’s wife Arabella. Arabella is everything that is wrong with money. She spends cash as if it grows on a tree, she pushes her children onto nannies and then complains about how much she works raising a family and believes everything can be solved with a few martinis and a trip up Bond street.

There are other faces in the Capital and all are interesting: Freddy the footballer who has moved from Africa for a chance in the Premiership, Quentina, a refugee from Zimbabwe who works away her days as a traffic warden, Zbigniew, a Polish builder who wants nothing more than to return home wealthy and supply for his parents and Smitty, a Banksy style artist and grandson of Petunia. They all interweave with each other and various minor characters. This is both a blessing and a curse. While I enjoyed most chapters I got bored during Freddy’s due to a disinterest in football. I found myself longing to return to those that I loved and I wonder if this will happen to other readers.

Another downfall of the book is that it can be very dry and a little bland. Other than a few standout moments, things just sort of bumble along never really picking up any pace. I never found myself dashing home to read it or longing to see what happened next. This is after all, just a snapshot of these lives and with the lacklustre “We Want What You Have” plot languishing there’s nothing to push you onwards.

There’s no denying that Lanchester has created a wonderful ensemble. There are various moments of brilliance but the length of the book gets to be a little much in the end. I found myself wanting to get through it to move on, rather than read the final moments. It’s funny that after saying that I also find myself saying that I enjoyed it. I enjoyed the complexities of these people’s lives and how they live alongside each other.

I feel as if I’ve only scratched the surface of this weighty tome as there are other characters I haven’t mentioned and plot points left to discover. Capital is tremendously hyped currently and being mentioned in sentences that contain the word ‘Booker’, I can see why. However, while I enjoyed the book I’m not sure I’ll remember it at year end when I choose my favourite reads of 2012.

Published by Faber and Faber. This book was kindly sent from the publisher.

2 thoughts on “Capital by John Lanchester

  1. savidgereads

    As I mentioned on goodreads this book is currently really winding me up. Its on Mariella, its on The Review Show its in all thr broadsheets and I am sure you will be the first of many bloggers who write about it. Interesting thoughts though, sadly not a book I am planning on reading even if it makes the Booker shortlist, or wins as everyone already seems to think it will.


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