Imagine a Hummingbird Cam, flying around and over an older residential street somewhere in London, buzzing the houses, darting randomly from one to another, swooping in low and hovering for a brief period, then abruptly lifting up and away to another distraction. That’s what reading this book is like.
This panoramic novel unfolds during 2008 over the beginning of the financial meltdown. It is set on the fictional street of Pepys Rd (Lanchester said he based it on streets in his own residential area of Clapham, London, which has been “bankerised” by the wealthy who commute to the City), in the Capital city of London. The residents include a wealthy trader and his obscenely entitled wife, a Muslim family running the local shop (and given the stereotypes in the book, one fears that the token Muslim family has a strong chance of leading to either terrorism or false accusations of such later in the book), a dying old lady, a Polish tradesman serving up his labour for the wealthy, a couple of recent immigrants from Africa, and several others. They all have different story lines, and the chapters hop around back and forth visiting and revisiting the characters. They are pulled together by the common thread of all receiving mysterious messages in various forms, all saying “We Want What You Have”.
There are so many characters that they tend to feel either a bit flat and anonymous, or else outlandishy cartoonish, as with the wealthy wife Arabella. Some of them, such as the Zimbabwean refugee traffic warden, who has a degree in political science, are showing the edges of a potentially really interesting story, but there just isnt time for follow through.
The writing is serviceable but often plodding: “Arabella knew that if she drank any more she would have a hangover and part of the point of being in this luxury spa was to go home looking and feeling fabulous, so she went to her room and read a novel set in Afghanistan until she realised she had fallen asleep twice already, and so she put the book down and turned out the light.”
Cliches (“Shit flows downhill”
) occasionally intrude, weakening the structure.
Most of the characters themselves want what someone else has. Some of them think they are in control of their lives, but so many extrinsic forces can distort the course of lives that sometimes free will seems only illusory. Given the time period, we know that the financial crisis, and the flow of financial capital is going to play a significant role in the book. It is also about the social capital too. Slowly we do become at least a bit invested in some of the characters, and this keeps the pages turning.
This is being widely touted for the Booker longlist, to be announced next week. It will be interesting to see if it makes it.
3 1/2 stars, generously rounded up.