This is a rather special book review, and so I’m letting it stand on its own.
My partner, Matthew, had shown an interest in reading this book a while ago; he reads a lot of audio books on his 3-mile walk to and from work. I’d been eying up the book and wanting to read it for some time, but was held back by my TBR Mountain, promising myself I could pick up this hefty tome when the TBR got that little bit smaller … Then my friend Sian presented me with a copy for my birthday! Hooray! Matthew was keen on reading the book together, and our friend Linda picked up on this and was keen to join in on her Kindle, and so the great Capital Reading Project began.
How we did it: Matthew would listen to his around 2 hours’ worth during the day. Luckily, the book is divided into short chapters, so it was easy to work out where he was. He’d tell me where he was up to, I’d text Linda, and then she and I would catch up that evening. We did get a little ahead of Matthew one weekend, and by mistake one weekday when he told us the wrong chapter number. But we kept reading alongside one another pretty steadily, and this added to my enjoyment of the novel, both in terms of being able to talk about with two friends, and in terms of being forced to read it more slowly than I naturally would have.
So, here are our reviews:
I had been keen on reading this State of the Nation novel for some time, especially when I realised it was set in South London, in what claims to be Lambeth but could be any road of three-storey terraces in Lambeth, Lewisham, Southwark or Greenwich. Lanchester takes a disparate group of residents – the old lady, the banker and his wife, the young footballer shipped in from Africa, the family in the corner shop – and more peripheral characters, from the Polish builder to the Zimbabwean traffic warden, and weaves the story of their lives around the macro events of the 2008 financial crisis and the micro events of a spate of odd postcards and increasingly hostile graffiti and websites. It never seems laboured, and while some characters are more sympathetic than others, it doesn’t slip into triteness, perhaps because of the size of the book and the room it’s all given to breathe. My favourite characters were the artist, Smitty, the Asian family with their dragon of a mother and affecting story, and Zbigeniew, the Polish builder. Each is portrayed with care and emotion; each seems real.
The ending speeds us on, and I definitely gained from being forced to read this more slowly. I guessed some of the plot points, not some of the others, and enjoyed tracing back the well-placed clues scattered through the text. An intelligent book with an ending that reflects life in the sprawling metropolis – some tragedies, some misunderstandings, some happy endings, some endings left looser than others. This will definitely make my top ten of 2013, and I’m glad that I was both compelled to read it sooner than I expected and compelled to read it more slowly than I naturally would have.
Capital is the first of John Lanchester’s books that I’ve read and I’m delighted that I did. The multiple perspectives of the narrative are engaging from the very first page. The use of Pepys St and the “We Want What You Have” campaign lends a narrative unity to Lanchester’s diverse set of characters, each of whom are portrayed with sensitivity and realism, except perhaps for Arabella: I don’t think Lanchester works particularly hard to build the reader’s sympathy for this entitled banker’s wife.
The seriousness of the novel grew slowly and overtook me by about 30% through (I was reading on the Kindle so the percentages stuck in my head). If I hadn’t been participating in a read-along, I think I’d have found myself staying up all night to finish it.
Lanchester also plays with our expectations: he subtly sets us up to anticipate that something will happen to Usman; yet it is one of his brothers who unwittingly becomes central to this part of the plot. It’s hard to say much more without revealing too much about the book but I did love the way that seemingly incidental characters gain their own strand of the story as the narrative progresses.
Capital is a thoroughly entertaining read about living in London during the middle of the first decade of the 21 century. The book is peopled with warm and engaging characters whose everyday lives and well-being you genuinely care about. There are people from all walks of life here and John Lanchester skillfully weaves their respective stories into and around the central plot. I chose to listen to the audiobook version of the novel and the narrator, Colin Mace, was absolutely first class, managing to bring an authenticity to just about every accent in the book – it really added an extra level of richness to the story and I would highly recommend anyone to listen to this book or just read the paper version, you won’t be disappointed.