Review: Capital; John Lanchester

WE WANT WHAT YOU HAVE… (4 stars) 

Source- borrowed from a friend

Published by Faber & Faber- January 2013

The paperback edition is 592 pages 

I usually prefer the books that I read to be more plot-driven than character-driven, so it was something of a surprise to me at just how much I enjoyed this character-centric story. Recommended to me by a work colleague who “couldn’t put it down” I certainly have to agree with her opinion that John Lanchester’s novel was an absorbing read. I also loved its fabulously quirky cover. 

Set at the height of the financial crisis between 2007 and 2008, Capital is a series of interconnecting stories about the residents in one affluent London neighbourhood- the residents of Pepys Road. We meet financial whiz kid Roger and his spendaholic wife, the elderly Petunia who is dying of a brain tumour and rising football star Freddy, amongst other inhabitants. When a series of sinister anonymous postcards start arriving at their properties with the declaration ‘WE WANT WHAT YOU HAVE’ the residents must consider who can possibly be behind it and what they actually want. 

Part drama, part mystery, Capital delves into both the ordinary and the extraordinary- capturing the every day lives of people in a city that is in a constant state of change. Its themes veer from exploring culture and social history, to terrorism, politics, relationships and financial crises. Not only did it offer an excellent insight into the lives of the characters themselves, but it did so against a really fascinating backdrop. 

Lanchester doesn’t just delve into the existences of the affluent residents of Pepys Road however; he also offers an intimate look into the lives of the working class too, including handymen, nannies and traffic wardens, whose day to day routines intersperse with the people at Pepys Road. I found this to be very neatly done, as for me personally, if I was just reading about upper class people, I probably would have grown bored pretty quickly. I cannot relate to those kinds of lifestyles at all! It offered a nice contrast to the plot and one of the main themes of the storyline was that despite the rich charade and the fact that from the outset you would expect the rich residents to be happy, infact this was not always the case. Money really cannot buy happiness. 

The tone of the plot veered between cynical and a slight degree of melodrama, though there were some nice facets of humour and poignancy too, as each life was peeled back and really explored. As a consequence, you do really feel like you get to know the characters- descriptions were intricate and they felt very believable for the most part. Traits in some I could recognise in people I know or have met in real life. I was sorry to leave some of them behind when I closed the book. 

For me, this book loses one star, merely because I did find some aspects of the narrative a bit drier than others- the parts of the storyline with Umran and his brothers in particular. I also found the female protagonists to be quite poorly written- one of them especially was just vile, with absolutely no redeeming qualities whatsoever. 

Though the ending was tied up satisfactorily too, I also felt it to be a bit rushed for my personal tastes, though I suppose that is the romantic in me always searching for that concrete ‘Happily Ever After’ and that just wasn’t this kind of book.  That aside, Capital was certainly an absorbing character study and an illuminating look into life in London, especially from an outsider’s perspective; on that basis, I would definitely read more from John Lanchester in future.

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