In this novel about greed and other human fallibilities, the houses on Pepys Road in London are characters in their own right. The prologue of CAPITAL describes their genesis in the late 19th century and the social history of their owners, right down to that flashpoint of financial history --- 2007 --- where the main action begins. “History had sprung an astonishing plot twist on the residents of Pepys Road. They were rich simply because…all of the houses in Pepys Road, as if by magic, were now worth millions of pounds.”
"I was fascinated, entertained, impressed and amused, and my copy of the book is festooned with so many colored stickies it looks like a prayer flag... The only thing wrong with CAPITAL is that it’s only 527 pages long."
The main human characters are skillfully introduced in the first 10 short chapters. We meet 40-year-old Roger Yount as he is anticipating a million-pound bonus at his banking firm, and the ways he and his extravagant wife Arabella will spend it. We’re introduced to Ahmed Kamal, who owns the shop at the end of Pepys Road, as he begins his day before dawn, dragging the newspapers from the sidewalk into the shop. Petunia Howe, a widow living alone in the house where she raised her children, is dealing with the first hints of her own mortality, which include fainting in Ahmed’s shop. Mickey Lipton-Miller, a lawyer and fixer for Premier League football, is checking out his house to be certain it’s ready for the next occupant, a 17-year-old African kid who was going to be starting on 20 grand a week. Quentina Mkfesi, an illegal immigrant from Nigeria, is filling her quota for parking violations by ticketing Mickey’s Aston-Martin.
Other than living in or working on Pepys Road, these residents seem to have little in common, except for the mysterious postcards they’ve begun to receive. The postcards feature detailed photos of their homes with a single phrase: We Want What You Have. As a plot device, the mystery of who is doing this and why weaves through the story, linking characters and events, and keeping us guessing. But the writing also more than does its part. John Lanchester is an absolute master at creating and embodying characters. And what illuminates them are their thoughts on what it means to live in their particular place and culture, leavened by the (to me) utterly charming bonus of British slang. As the banking crisis deepens and Roger gets sacked, he finds himself on the Commons on a rare sunny summer day. “The sprawlers looked like yobs and proles, but Roger knew that appearances were deceptive; just because they had their kit off and were getting drunk didn’t mean that they weren’t web designers, secretaries, nurses, software engineers, chefs. It was a rule of London life that anybody could be anybody.”
After thoroughly sucking us in, Lanchester leads us through deaths, betrayals, unjust imprisonment and revenge plots. I was fascinated, entertained, impressed and amused, and my copy of the book is festooned with so many colored stickies it looks like a prayer flag. Here’s another one: “The bow window had huge heavy ruched curtains in deep scarlet, but they were only pretend-curtains, which you couldn’t actually pull all the way across. That was in keeping with what was wrong with the hotel. It was pretending to be some olde-worlde haven of calm and order and how-life-should-be, while being full of small modern bits of crapness.”
Of course, we ultimately find out who was sending the postcards and why. The only thing wrong with CAPITAL is that it’s only 527 pages long.
Reviewed by Eileen Zimmerman Nicol on June 22, 2012