A capital idea?

John Lanchester’s novel ‘Capital’ may have been on the bookshelves for over a year, but there are plenty of reasons to take it to the beach this summer.

With ‘Capital’, are we talking money or big cities or both?

It takes about four years before recent events wind up as the setting for books and movies. Such is the case with author John Lanchester’s latest work, ‘Capital’, which his publishers released in the spring of 2013. 

The novel follows the lives of the residents of a fictitious block of London’s Pepys Road, south of the Thames and in proximity to Clapham Common, as each starts receiving mysterious postcards that state “We want what you have” on the eve of the 2008 global credit market meltdown.

Lanchester begins his story with a Michner-esque history of the homes on the block, beginning with their construction in the 19th century, through to the wave of gentrification that started in the 1970s and up to the novel’s present day, before introducing the story’s characters.

Are they characters or caricatures?

The Pepys Street residents are a cross-section of London society archetypes that range from the up-and-coming banker and his spendthrift wife to the infirm pensioner raising her graffiti artist grandson to the Pakistani shop keeper, Polish labourer, young Senegalese footballer – with dreams of fame and fortune on the pitch – and the illegal Zimbabwean traffic warden who wants to do her job and stay of everyone’s radar.

Lanchester weaves the threads of each character’s life, experience and struggles together. Thus is sometimes done in a jarring manner, but the story delivers some ‘laugh out loud’ moments, which London natives will recognise immediately.

So is the financial crisis more of a backdrop to the story rather than its central theme?

If a reader picks up ‘Capital’ with the hopes to get a better understanding of the financial crisis’ origin and how it played out while still being entertained, some disappointment may ensue. The book does not go into granular detail about the crisis, even though one of the characters works in the City. It would be better to read Lanchester’s previous book, ‘I.O.U.’, a collection of essays and interviews about the crisis.

‘Capital’ is a fun read for those who want to eavesdrop on the personal lives of others that are trying to improve their lot while fighting to maintain what they have.

The story starts off strong, but drop pace as it progresses. The middle section isn’t as strong or as funny as the first. The final third is weaker still, with the discovery of who has been sending the postcards saved for the last few paragraphs of the story.

Even so, ‘Capital’ is a good candidate for a light late-summer holiday read, but do not expect a massive amount of insight to the financial machinations that brought the global economy to its knees.

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