Pepys Road, the setting for Capital, John Lanchester’s entertaining new novel, is one of those streets in modern London whose working-class houses have increased in value so precipitously that today only the ludicrously wealthy can afford one, though a dwindling number of original owners hang in. And on this particular street in South London there is mystery afoot. All the residents have received a postcard with a picture of their home and this creepy message: We Want What You Have.
This is the common plot, but the more important business of Capital concerns four households and six storylines (and several subplots) that shift and occasionally overlap over 107 chapters and 527 pages. The book is set mostly in 2008 and, notwithstanding world economic collapse, it is a year of upheaval on Pepys Road (which one can’t help thinking of as a brainy and more diverse version of Coronation Street).
The novel opens around Christmas 2007, and at 51 Pepys, Roger Yount, who runs a currency-trading desk in the city, is counting on a million-quid bonus, essential if he is to sate the commercial appetites of his horrid wife, Annabel. The Kamals, a Pakistani family who run the shop at 68, have their lives disrupted when one of them is accused of terrorism and detained for weeks without charges. Petunia Howe, at 42 Pepys, is 82, the oldest original resident; her grandson, Graham, is the famously transgressive installation artist known as Smitty. Freddy Kamo, a soccer phenom from Senegal, lives at 27 Pepys during his first season in England.
This is a massively ambitious project and Lanchester never misses a trick. And his writerly presence hovers over every page—grinning, needling, outraged, leaving no flaw nor foible unturned. Certainly, Samuel Pepys, that great chronicler of the personal and the public in another London, would be well pleased with it.