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A capital yarn.

May 20, 2012

There’s something strangely satisfying about losing yourself in other peoples’ lives, and John Lanchester’s brilliant new novel Capital—his first work of fiction for ten years—offers such voyeuristic pleasures on a grand scale. A sweeping portrait of contemporary London painted on the diverse canvas of a single street and its residents, Capital is a richly observed story of luck and misfortune, wealth and hardship, belonging and displacement. 

Lanchester connects a rather overwhelming (but finely handled) quantity of characters and narrative threads with an intriguing mystery: in December 2007, when the novel opens, every resident of South London’s Pepys Road receives a postcard featuring a photograph of their house and the words ‘We Want What You Have.’ Over the course of the next twelve months, similar missives—always featuring the same five words—continue to hit the doormats of those lucky enough to live on Pepys Road, once the preserve of the lower middle-class and now home to the rich: ‘having a house in Pepys Road is like being in a casino in which you were guaranteed to be a winner.’

But this isn’t just a story about rich people. While 51 Pepys Road is home to smooth investment banker Roger (‘looking at him, women would often find themselves wondering: tall, rich, well-dressed, clean: why isn’t he sexy?’) and his money-loving wife, Arabella, it’s also the realm of the old, the ethnic, the famous, and the illegal. 42 Pepys Road has been home to melancholy widow Petunia Howe for over eighty years, a duration that’s aptly reflected by her kitchen décor (‘exactly like time travel to 1958’); Petunia is occasionally visited by her grandson, Smitty, ‘performance and installation artist and all-round art world legend,’ a Banksy-like bad boy famous for his anonymity; Ahmed and Rohinda Kamal own and live above the local convenience store, which is staffed by Ahmed’s brothers, Shahid and Usman, who cause Ahmed endless irritation; Freddy Kamo, seventeen-year-old football prodigy from Senegal who’s just signed a contract with a Premier League club, moves into number 27 as he begins his sporting career.

Then, of course, there are those whose livelihoods depends on the street’s residents: Zbigniew the Polish builder, who makes the renovation dreams of the rich a reality; Matya, the Hungarian nanny who cares for Roger and Arabella’s two boys; and Quentina—a local traffic warden, and thus ‘the most unpopular woman in Pepys Road’—a Zimbabwean refugee with a Masters in Political Science and a forged UK work permit.

As the major and minor dramas of these characters’ lives unfold over the course of a year, the deepening—and increasingly menacing—mystery of the We Want What You Have campaign lingers in the background. It ultimately gives shape to a wonderfully satisfying conclusion that manages to avoid the contrived feel of so many ensemble cast narratives: Lanchester never patronises his readers by suddenly unveiling hidden connections between his characters, or uniting them all in a dramatic denouement. His story is too rich and complex for such machinations; instead, it offers a portrait of urban existence, with its tangle of dropped and overlapping threads.

Aside from keeping Lanchester’s narrative clipping along, the odd campaign that plagues the residents of Pepys Road also illuminates a peculiar truth about human nature. It may seem easy to envy the people of this street, with their million-pound houses and coveted postcode, but their circumstances are hardly so straightforward—and, often, far from desirable. Indeed, what many resent about the barrage of postcards (and other, more sinister deliveries) is the misguided sentiment that drives it—who, they wonder in their more frustrated moments, could possibly want what they have? 

This, of course, is a loaded question. But Lanchester’s gift as a novelist is his effortless, and rather paradoxical, ability to both inhabit his characters and scrutinise them with the objectivity of the outsider. He’s droll and gently satirical without ever losing empathy, and his marvellous sense of observation gives depth to every figure in the novel, however peripheral. While Rohinka reflects that life with young children means that ‘every hour of the day’ is hard, it also brings ‘moments of the purest love, the least earthbound feeling she had ever had’; Inspector Mills, the quietly spoken policeman in charge of the We Want What You Have investigation, is marked by his obvious class status—at a street meeting, he sweeps the hair from his forehead, a small but significant move. ‘His hair wasn’t in fact long enough to get in his eyes, but this gesture was like an atavistic survival of a period during which he had a long, floppy fringe. So for a moment everyone in the room glimpsed him with that languid public school hair.’

Even Lanchester’s more ridiculous figures—in the novel’s opening chapters, Roger spends an inordinate amount of time dwelling on how likely he is to receive a million pound bonus, and the disaster he’s sure will unfold if he doesn’t—are real enough to win our interest and our sympathy.

Lanchester’s exploration of these lives creates a thoughtful study of place and belonging, and of the difference—as one character observes—between your roots and your home. London is huge and dirty and overwhelming and charming and iconic all at once, and its complexity is magnified through the eyes of Capital’s diverse cast: both insiders and outsiders, they variously experience the city as home or escape, refuge or temporary nightmare. London has changed immeasurably in Petunia’s lifetime, but 42 Pepys Road ‘was still the same house and still the same door and still the same her walking through it’; the smell of wood smoke takes Quentina back to Harare and ‘the wonderful knownness of the place which held her from her first memories to the day she was forced to leave’; on his first visit to the Embankment, Zbigniew experiences, ‘for the first time, a feeling of being in the middle of London. It was like: London? Here it finally is!’ (It helps that ‘for once it wasn’t raining and there came a time when the clouds even parted.’)

Capital is a wonderful novel, an epic and generous evocation of contemporary life, and of those moments—however small—that unite us no matter who we are and where we hail from. Lanchester’s scope is vast, but his writing strikes the perfect note of wit, empathy, and observation, creating a surprisingly intimate exploration of what it means to be human. Ahmed sums it up aptly as he drives to Heathrow to collect his mother, the irrepressibly negative Mrs Kamal, and must navigate London’s ‘sheer weight of traffic.’ ‘Sheer weight,’ he reflects—‘how much of life was sheer weight of something?’

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