The lives of our neighbours are a taboo subject. We know we shouldn't look, we pretend not to, but there are almost certainly times when we're curious about what goes on over the fence.
The last two books I've read concern the lives of neighbours, telling the stories of those who live in a single street. But where Christopher Morgan's Currawalli Street begins by following residents of relatively similar means in a new Melbourne subdivision in 1912, Capital by John Lanchester explores the vastly different fortunes of those who live and work in Pepys Road, south London, in 2007.
Pepys Road was once the home of the lower-middle class family, but in 2007 its terraced houses are rapidly succumbing to the loft conversions, basement extensions and almost continuous redecoration which signify the street's gentrification. The immigrants have moved out and the bankers have moved in. As Lanchester writes in the prologue, "Britain had become a country of winners and losers, and all the people in the street, just by living there, had won."
The cast comprises a range of people you might encounter in London's cosmopolitan society. There's 82-year-old Petunia, who was born in Pepys Road and lives in one of the last remaining un-renovated houses, a Pakistani Muslim family who run the corner shop, a banker and his ghastly over-spending wife Arabella, a Polish builder, a Hungarian nanny, a Senegalese footballer, and Quentina, a Zimbabwean refugee and parking warden with a PhD.
Lanchester switches smoothly from one character to another, providing each with a convincing voice and point of view. The thread linking the characters is a hate campaign, beginning with a simple postcard slipped through each letterbox bearing a photograph of the recipient's front door and the words "We want what you have." As the campaign mounts in intensity the characters become increasingly anxious. Who is behind the campaign and what do they plan to do?
The book is set in London from December 2007 to November 2008, just as the financial crisis is kicking in. One of the first characters we meet is banker Roger Yount, who is anxiously awaiting confirmation of the amount of his annual bonus. If it's not at least a million pounds, he will go broke. By the time he has run through his three-page summary of their expenses (the mortgage, the renovations, the re-renovations, the art collection, the school fees, the day nanny, the weekend nanny, the country house, the renovations on the country house, the annual holiday abroad, the cars, his colossal tax bill, their annual summer party... ), he had almost convinced me of his poverty. Most of his anticipated bonus has already been spent and while the Younts are vastly rich by global and national standards, a million pounds a year would barely cover the extravagant lifestyle to which they have become accustomed. Roger has a problem. And it's about to get bigger.
The first half of the book races by and each story is full of "aha moments" - observations so astute and so revealing about society and human relationships that they evoke instant recognition in the reader. Take Smitty, a performance and installation artist: "From his dealings with his mother, Smitty had learned the following truth: the person doing the worrying experiences it as a form of love, the person being worried about experiences it as a form of control."
Then there's Patrick, the father of football protégé Freddy Kamo, newly arrived in London from Senegal and wandering along that bijou shopping strip that is the Kings Road. He gazes into the shop windows, marvelling that anyone would want to buy "lamps which did not look as if they would emit any light, shoes no woman could stand in, coats which would not keep anyone warm, chairs which had no obvious ways to sit on them".
I've tagged my copy of the book with many such piercing observations, as Lanchester holds an unforgiving mirror to the excesses of modern society and the harshness of life in a big city. It makes compelling if sometimes uncomfortable reading. The passage in which Quentina compares the explosive venom expressed by the recipient of a parking ticket to the life-and-death worries of her compatriots is particularly powerful.
Lanchester is a novelist and journalist who has written extensively about the financial crisis. His popular 2010 book Whoops! Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay sought to explain the financial crisis to the average person.
He returns to that subject in Capital, but its 577 pages also cover such weighty themes as human rights, terrorism, immigration, ageing, death and capitalism. Although the pressure on the characters increases in the latter half of the novel, in places the story drags. Arabella's child-like behaviour and scheming ways become less convincing until she is almost a cardboard cut-out of the greedy corporate wife. The hate campaign builds some suspense and exposes the self-centred nature of certain individuals, but loses impact when it is drawn out for too long.
Still, Capital is an absorbing, compelling and entertaining read. It will be particularly of interest to those familiar with life in London over the last decade. Highly recommended.