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Review: Capital by John Lanchester

One of the best scenes in John Lanchester's novel Capital has a banker sitting at his desk calculating his bonus. Will he make a million, or just under? Does he deserve it?

He is quite sure that he does. In fact, he needs a million, if he is to pay for the mortgages on his house, his second home, the Bang & Olufsen music system, the fees for his son's private school, his wife's clothes and the renovation of their nanny flat. In case you hadn't guessed, this is 2007. I don't need to tell you what happens with the bonus.

Novelists are starting to consider the first decade of this century. The boom, with its prosperity, greed and spiralling house prices, usually becomes a metaphor for something else. For Lanchester, the dysfunctional spread of wealth is part of the history of a city -- London -- that is bigger than its inhabitants. His novel maintains a thoughtful distance from events. It is divided into four sections: December 2007, before anyone knew what was coming; April 2008, when the then British Chancellor Alistair Darling was still being "optimistic" about his country's economy; August 2008, when Darling announced that Britain faced the most profound economic downturn in 60 years; and November, when things got worse.

Capital follows the tracks of seven people who live on a single street in London's suburbs, a street that, perhaps predictably, was inhabited by the lower-middle classes before real estate values shot up. An 82-year-old woman is the oldest resident, measuring out her last days; a Pakistani Muslim family own the local shop and are getting on with family life; and the banker Roger Yount and his wife Arabella are revelling in their wealth but their marriage is showing early signs of strain.

A cast of other characters connects with these figures, building into more than 17 subplots: there is a Hungarian nanny who works for the Younts; a successful graffiti artist -- the elderly woman's grandson -- who is really a bit of a fraud; and a Polish builder who does a lot of work on the street's properties and whose name none of his employers can remember.

The novel opens with a five-page excursus on the history of Pepys Road. The account takes a long view, a reminder that houses always outlast the people who build and buy and live in them.

"It would be hard to put your finger on the exact point when Pepys Road began its climb up the economic ladder. A conventional answer would be to say that it tracked the change in Britain's prosperity, emerging from the dowdy chrysalis of the late Seventies and transforming into a vulgar, loud butterfly of the Thatcher decades and the long boom that followed them. But it didn't seem quite like that to people who lived in the street."

In the recent boom, Lanchester tells us, house prices crept from the thousands to the hundreds of thousands and then the millions. It was like Texas during the oil rush. "When people met they held off the subject of house prices with a conscious sense of restraint, and gave in to the desire to talk about them with relief."

Capital is an enormously ambitious novel, which aspires to touch upon all walks of London life. For instance, one member of the Pakistani family travelled to Chechnya as a young man to fight in the conflict there; he has left those days behind, but nevertheless gets innocently caught up in a plot to blow up the Channel Tunnel. Meanwhile, Arabella Yount decides to leave her husband to take care of their children on his own for a few days over Christmas; although she employs several nannies and spends most of her time drinking cocktails and getting pedicures she somehow still finds life tough. When she returns, something has changed between her and her husband: she realises that she isn't as indispensable as she thought.

In a narrative with so many competing subplots, some strands are inevitably more captivating than others. Several times I found myself surreptitiously leafing ahead because I couldn't bear to wait four chapters to find out what would happen to one of my favourite characters.

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Least compelling, to me, was the tale of a Zimbabwean refugee who works illegally as a traffic warden on Pepys Road. It's a worthy subject, but the emotion and relevance of the story seem lacking. Perhaps there just isn't space in one novel to fully convey the lives of so many individuals.

Although Capital foreshadows the probable demise of one marriage (one that happens to be based around wealth and acquisition) it ends with the start of a romance, as another couple, who aren't rich, fall in love. Ultimately it seems that money isn't everything after all. It's as though this phase of exorbitant riches was little more than an unhappy blip.

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