Even though I truly enjoyed this book, my overwhelming impression while in its midst was that it was totally not what I expected. Standing in the bookstore and reading the back cover, I imagined a sort of mystery, crime, thriller genre with a good dose of humor. I am not a big crime or thriller reader, but the idea of it mixed with quirky British characters and a London setting intrigued me. In fact, my impression could not have been further from the truth, as the story of the mysterious postcards is SO secondary that for great stretches it is seemingly forgotten by the author. Instead, this is more aptly a look at the lives of archetypal London types from all rungs on the societal ladder during the time period of the 2008 financial bust. And when I finally realized this fact and stopped waiting for the crime mystery to take center stage, I was able to simply sit back and become engrossed in the cast of characters.
Pepys Road hasn’t always been such a tony address, so there’s a mix of the old-timers and the newcomers with money. For instance, Petunia Howe is an 80-year-old widow who’s lived in her house since childhood, while banker Roger Yount and his airhead wife are an upwardly mobile, yuppie family type who’ve recently moved to the neighborhood. Then, there’s Freddy Kamos, a 17-year-old just off the plane from Senegal to play professional soccer, as well as the Pakistani family who run a convenience store on the block. There are quite a few more supporting characters, such as Zimbabwean Quentina Mkfase, the illegal immigrant parking enforcement attendant, and Petunia’s grandson, Smitty, and a host of worker bees like nannies and handymen who add flavor to the story.
Each chapter focuses on a particular character’s circumstances and rarely do the characters’ lives intersect, which was a bit disappointing. However, the more I think about it, the more I realize it mirrors real life. People of different backgrounds and on different rungs of the social ladder rarely mix and mingle, and this is simply art imitating life. Regardless of their non-intersecting lives, the characters’ stories are captivating and totally believable. Having lived in New York, I think I overdosed on meeting financially over-extended yuppies in the rat race with wives whose only concern was what to buy next. Roger Yount fits the bill to a T, and his lady-who-lunches wife Arabella is so aptly painted, I wanted to climb into the pages and kick her in her teeth myself. Lanchester’s portrayal of the plight of immigrants, both legal and not, is also moving. What can happen to a Muslim immigrant who makes an innocent mistake in today’s Islamophobic climate is addressed in Ahmed Kamal’s family story, and how an asylum seeker fares in the West is told through Quentina’s poignant tale.
What is also inviting about this book is that even though the characters are dealing with some heavy issues, Lanchester is able to inject much humor into his stereotypical characters and their thoughts. Nevertheless, I feel the book is a tad too long for the subject matter it treats. At almost 600 pages, it’s a definite time commitment, and I found myself wondering when the heck something was going to happen other than character development in the first 300 pages. In the end, if one looks at the novel as more of a social commentary on the varying attitudes, fortunes, and societal pressures of different social classes in modern Western society, it is a much more enjoyable, thought-provoking read than imagining it to be a mystery novel and being disappointed. If one wants a slice of life look at modern urban life, this is a good place to start. If one is looking for a mystery novel, keep looking.