Our latest book of the month is an ambitious take on the recent banking collapse and how it has affected ordinary lives, as ANDREW FFRENCH finds out


JOHN Lanchester’s fourth novel is an ambitious, sprawling story that is as much about the country’s capital and the way it works as it is about the people that inhabit it.

It is set in a particular time, the end of 2007, and reflects on the collapse of the banking industry that was foreshadowed by the government bail-out of Newcastle building society Northern Rock.

The plot is devastatingly simple, but the way the author interweaves the lives of the characters in this entertaining novel is much more complex.

Lanchester takes an ordinary looking street in London, calls it Pepys Road, and makes it the focus of this 577-page tale of financial woe.

He zooms in on the lives of the residents of Pepys Road, a banker and his wife who loves shopping, an elderly woman dying of a brain tumour, the Pakistani who runs the local shop, and the talented young footballer from Senegal and his minder, among others.

All the homes receive a postcard with a blunt message – ‘we want what you have’, but it isn’t immediately clear what the sender actually wants.

The mystery of the postcards and subsequent DVDs is maintained by the author as the collapsing economy begins to take a toll on the lives of the residents.

The financial crash is particularly pertinent in the case of Roger Yount, who works for a firm in the City of London and lives in Pepys Road with wife Arabella and their two young sons Conrad and Joshua.

Roger and his wife live slightly beyond their substantial means and Lanchester, as omniscient narrator, racks up the tension as the banker sweats on whether he is going to get his £1m bonus.

As Christmas approaches, it appears that the payment could be in doubt, not because of Roger’s poor performance, but because of a poorly performing Swiss subsidiary.

All is not well on the home front either as Arabella takes herself off for a spa break, leaving Roger to cope with his two young sons alone over the festive break. Even the nannies have deserted him.

Lanchester keeps the chapters short in Capital, so the pages keep turning reasonably quickly, although his prose is calm and measured, providing a detailed look at the everyday lives of the Pepys Road inhabitants.

The author seems in no particular hurry to reveal why the mysterious postcards keep coming through the letterboxes.

But that gives him all the time he needs to paint his own picture of the vast melting pot of the capital, with people of all different creeds living cheek by jowl.

If Pepys Road is a microcosm of London, then it is also a testing ground for the effects of the markets crashing.

Capital’s range of diverse characters and its contemporary and universal subject matter make it a perfect choice for any book group.

Lanchester has gone to town on a story that he started to investigate but didn’t fully explore in Mr Phillips, an earlier novel from the year 2000.

The banking crisis has provided him with the perfect incentive to return to the same subject matter, but with a story that the vast majority of readers should be able to invest in. I loved this tale of woe, found it life-affirming and uplifting, and can’t wait for his next novel.



JOURNALIST and novelist John Lanchester was born in Hamburg in 1962, was brought up in Hong Kong, and studied at Oxford University’s St John's College.

He has worked as a football reporter, obituary writer, books editor, restaurant critic, and deputy editor of The London Review of Books, where he is a contributing editor.

Other publications he has written for include The Observer, Daily Telegraph, The Guardian and Granta magazine. In 1996, Mr Lanchester’s first novel, The Debt to Pleasure, won the Whitbread First Novel prize.

The amusing account of talkative Englishman Tarquin Winot and his thoughts on food as he journeys around France also won the Hawthorden Prize.

In 2000, Mr Lanchester’s next novel Mr Phillips was published, which describes one day in the life of Victor Phillips, a middle-aged accountant who has lost his job.

The author’s 2002 novel Fragrant Harbour is set in Hong Kong in the 1980s and focuses on the lives of three immigrants, while his memoir, Family Romance, published in 2007, reveals the story of his mother, and what happened after she left the convent where she lived as a nun.

In 2010, Lanchester’s next non-fiction title was Whoops! Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay, about the global financial downturn.
He is married with two children and lives in London.