Capital – John Lanchester

john lanchester

Read September 2014

Like other Capitals (Marx, Picketty) this is massive and, in fact, left-leaning in its politics. It’s described as a state-of-the-nation novel and a London-novel in its blurb and reviews. Written in 2012, it touches on the big issues facing Britain – and London in particular – in 2008, as the financial crash was about to happen: house prices, the banking industry, debt and consumerism, legal and illegal immigration, terrorism, Islamophobia and work.

It’s a story about the people living on, or connected to, one street in London – Pepys Road – and how their lives pan out. There are no main characters; instead, it’s a book about roughly 15 people: a Senegalese footballer, a banker and his family, an artist, a Polish builder, a Hungarian nanny, a Pakistani family and so on.

By telling the individual, occasionally overlapping, story of each of these characters what we don’t get, I think, is a depth of feeling for any of them: there isn’t enough time to tell each person’s complex story in-depth, so you come away not caring for all the characters and not having explored them at a level you might like to. And, I’m not sure about this, but there’s an occasional feeling that their characterisation is so thin that you’re really reading stereotypes (the banker who’s got in too deep, the immigrant who wants to work and have a better life, the artist who knows how to play the anti-consumerism game, and so on).

But, even if you don’t get the depth, what you do get with this broad range of characters is a great cross-section of the London that this book is about; we see the fate of the super-rich and the struggling immigrant, the old and the young, and so on. It’s this, and the way it tackles Britain’s biggest topics, that makes it an astute – and very readable – state-of-the-nation novel.