Skip to content

Capital, by John Lanchester

This wrist-breaker is hard to do justice to. Centering on one block of well-to-do Pepys Road in London, it has so many characters that more than once I had to stop and flip some pages: “Wait. WHO is this again?” It’s not that any character in this book is minor; they’re all completely drawn, and every one of them is important to the plot. It’s just that there are so many of them! A clueless banker and his spendthrift wife, the Polish carpenter remodeling their house, their Hungarian nanny, the Pakistani shopkeepers at the end of the street, a graffiti artist who carefully guards his identity, his feckless assistant, a Senegalese football player… this is by no means the whole list, but gives you an idea of the range and number of moving parts that Lanchester keeps chugging away, and meshing in unexpected ways.

This isn’t one of those character-driven novels where nothing happens, either. The plot is carried forward by a mystery: everyone on the street receives unsigned postcards, picturing their own doorways, with the phrase “We Want What You Have” written on the back:

At first light on a late summer morning, a man in a hooded sweatshirt moved softly and slowly along an ordinary-looking street in South London. He was doing something, though a bystander would have been hard put to guess what. Sometimes he crept closer to houses, sometimes he backed further away. Sometimes he looked down, sometimes he looked up. At close range, that bystander would have been able to tell that the young man was carrying a small high-definition video camera — except that there was no bystander, so there was no one to notice. Apart from the young man, the street was empty. Even the earliest risers weren’t up yet, and it wasn’t a day for milk delivery or rubbish collection. Maybe he knew that, and the fact that he was filming the houses then was no coincidence.

The mystery escalates; some of the Pepys Road residents are convinced that they know who the culprit is, but for various reasons, can’t make the accusation, or prove it.

The story is huge, multi-threaded, as good on the small details of life as on its biggest questions. Sometimes tragic, often hilarious, I thought it was an entertaining and memorable read.

author photo: Coll McDonnell