Capital by John Lanchester

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Capital by John Lanchester

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Robin Leggett
Reviewed by Robin Leggett
Summary: Lanchester takes a cross-section of London life in this state-of-a-nation series of interwoven short stories centred around one residential street in South London pre-financial crash. Astutely observed and highly entertaining.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 577 Date: February 2012
Publisher: Faber and Faber
ISBN: 9780571234608

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With a gentle nod to the great commentator of London life of the past, John Lanchester sets his wonderfully entertaining state of the nation book around Pepys Road. With a huge cast of characters, he looks at a cross-section of London life and while in some ways not quite perfect, it comes pretty darn close.

There are inevitable challenges with setting a story around one street and aiming to present a cross-section of society in the nation's capital. Firstly, this is the South so you cannot have a Northern, 'Coronation Street' style setting because in the South, and in London in particular, talking to your neighbour is close to, well, a capital offence. Secondly, by the nature of things, residential streets tend towards homogeneity rather than diversity. Lanchester gets around this by extending the coverage to those with a loose affiliation to the street - that may be the Polish builder who has worked on the street or the Zimbabwean political asylum seeker who is illegally working as a traffic warden and whose beat sometimes includes Pepys Street. To this, he adds some natural variation in the economic circumstances of the residents by including a long-time resident who pre-dates the wealth of the area, the Pakistani brothers who run the local newsagent as well as the young African football star who is renting a property and the rich banker and his horrific, Ab-fab style wife and their various nannies.

The second major challenge is that there is a danger that the story lacks a driving force, which Lanchester overcomes with the mysterious postcards and DVDs that residents are regularly sent that contain the warning we want what you have. Strangely this works less well and is often forgotten, at least in the early stages. It almost feels as if it is tacked on to great a story arc when in fact it isn't really needed although it helps to round things off towards the end.

It's not too much of a stretch to describe the book as veering towards the Dickensian. It's the sort of book you can imagine Dickens writing today if he were still around. The characters are all believable if slightly exaggerated. It would be a fair observation that these veer towards the cliché at times, but to my mind, that's forgivable as clichés become clichés because they contain an element of truth.

In many ways, it's like an interwoven set of short stories, and inevitably some of these are more satisfying than others, but all of them kept me wanting to know more and to see how things progressed.

What Lanchester does best is to identify the things that occupy our minds today. In particular, this relates to money - the capital of the title has a clear double meaning - and those who have it and those who don't. In particular, there is that curiously English obsession with house prices. Then, of course, there's the immigrant labour issue as well as the racial and religious diversity angle, childcare, the health service, hatred of traffic wardens and of public transport. It's as if he has taken the Daily Mail's list of approved subjects and incorporated them all into one huge story. Throw in a bit of football and the magical powers of a good cup of tea, and you pretty much have the UK in a nutshell. If social anthropologists pick up this book in 200 years' time, then they will have a pretty good idea of what London life is like in the noughties. Sadly.

Most of all, there's a prevailing sense of humour throughout of the Nick Hornby or David Nicholls variety. It's the type of book that you will almost certainly recognise thoughts of your friends and even yourself in, however uncomfortable that may be. Who, after all, can claim not to have been enraged by a traffic warden?

It's hugely entertaining in a kind of superior soap opera kind of way. In fact, one of the only things that doesn't sit with the times is that this is capital that will earn a high level of interest. Some may, understandably, cite a somewhat rambling approach, but that is, for me, part of its appeal. Expect this to feature on the literary prize lists.

Our thanks to those nice people at Faber and Faber who sent us a copy for review.

It's a book that has much in common with The Secret Intensity of Everyday Life by William Nicholson which takes a similar type of view of the even more affluent, commuter belt life. A Week in December by Sebastian Faulks would probably also appeal. You might also be interested in Family Romance by John Lanchester.

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