A weekly look at recent releases. This week: "Capital" and "A Hundred Flowers."
London, on the eve of the 2008 financial collapse, is the setting for John Lanchester's latest novel, which takes a humorous, sardonic look at the new social classes of 21st-century Great Britain. The story centers on a London street whose century-old townhomes have been "discovered" by rising stars in that city's financial center. The lives of several, widely diverse people intersect on that street, including those of an investment banker and his wife, a model of conspicuous consumption; a young soccer star from Africa; a Pakistani shop-owning family, and a construction tradesman from Poland. The tension builds as the financial crisis looms and an anonymous mischief-maker sends notes to residents that say, "We want what you have." The threatening notes are a fitting commentary on the era's values. And this entertaining, astute book is perhaps the best post-crisis novel to date.
In 1956, Mao Zedong announced, "Let a hundred flowers bloom; let a hundred schools of thought contend." Across China, artists and activists took him seriously and began to express themselves freely. Soon most were imprisoned or worse. His deceitful words form the bitterly ironic title of this sweet, quiet novel, set in the city of Guangzhou in 1958, the story of one family's struggle to survive amid political oppression. It begins when 7-year-old Tao falls out of a tall kapok tree he's climbed to gaze at a distant mountain and to ponder the disappearance of his father, taken away recently by men dressed in drab gray. His gentle mother, an herbalist, and his dignified grandfather, a former professor, have fallen quiet and distracted. The story shifts smoothly among their viewpoints, as well as to those of a neighbor woman and a 15-year-old pregnant homeless girl who stumbles into the family's courtyard one day. Despite some flawed writing -- frequent dangling modifiers and a tendency early in the novel to present three pages of background for every page of action -- this is a wise and arresting story, one that stays with you long after you've finished the book.
NIGHT/WEEKEND METRO EDITOR