Book review: Capital by John Lanchester

I read Capital by John Lanchester whilst away on holiday two weeks ago.

It was slightly ironic to be reading about London while lying in bed in a cottage in one of the most remote parts of the UK, but because of the smartphone blackout I was not tempted to check what was happening back home via text or social media, I really got into a book for the first time in ages.

I got into it because it’s very well written and thus easy to read. Lanchester has a simple writing style and the chapters are short. But the ambition of the novel was far from simple – it’s a state of the nation, a picture of the Way We Live Now… At times I was thrilled by how cleverly the characters, who seem different on the surface, are linked – initially it seems that the only thing they have in common is the London street they inhabit, but there are far deeper connections that the author reveals over time, which means that you do think ‘just another chapter…’ until you have to put the book down and sleep.

It’s not perfect. It’s not as clever or powerful as some of the tomes it perhaps aims to emulate, for example Trollope.  At first the characters feel like stereotypes, not very deep, but perhaps this is because they are so familiar. If you’ve lived in any major city in Britain you recognise them instantly. Luckily Lanchester gets right under their skin, and many of them turn from stereotypes into more complex characters, who are flawed but for some reason you will them to prevail as the story unfolds.

About 3-quarters of the way into the book I was thoroughly excited and I thought the ending was going to be amazing, but sadly it made me feel a bit disappointed, it was rather pedestrian compared to the thrilling complexities that the author had woven into the middle of the story. Without wanting to give anything away (because I do recommend this book, for a rattling good read) it felt like a bit of a compromise, the mystery which is the central theme of the book turns out to be more Murder She Wrote than Miss Marple.

Having said that, I really enjoyed this. And writing this review. There’s also a good review in the Guardian, which has interesting things to say about John Lanchester’s ability to get under the skin of his myriad characters and be omniscient.

Next up: Predatory Thinking by Dave Trott

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