528 p. 2012
How can a writer fill over 500 pages largely about ordinary lives where nothing much happens and yet leave you wanting more? This was my selection for bookgroup but I must confess that I didn’t realize that it was quite so long. Oh dear, I thought, the ladies will be very cross with me, but it didn’t take long for me to not even care.
The book is set over a roughly a one-year period, starting in December 2007, just as the Global Financial Crisis is starting to bite. It focusses on Pepys Road in South London, a street where prices have boomed. Some families have lived there for decades, almost oblivious to the goldmine that they’re sitting on, while others are on their upward professional trajectory, only too aware of their burgeoning wealth. They are a diverse group: a widowed elderly woman, a Pakistani family who own the small grocery shop, an African footballer who has a contract with an English football team, a wealthy money trader and his wife, and an Eastern European housepainter. Then there are other people who are tied to these householders: a nanny, a grandson, a daughter, an aggrieved personal assistant and a Zimbabwean refugee working as a parking inspector.
What is common to the residents of Pepys Road is that they have all received in their letter box a postcard that shows a photograph of their front door and the enigmatic message ‘We Want What You Have’. The postcards keep coming, with photographs of their houses from varying sightlines and at different times.
The book follows the little dramas of the inhabitants of Pepys Road in short chapters of just a couple of pages each. I felt, in a way, like the unnamed postcard-sender, looking in at the window of one house for just a few minutes before moving onto the next. It was a wonderful way to approach such a lengthy, sprawling book. The characters were so well defined, so quickly, that I only once or twice had to flick back to see who they were again. I found myself sitting down on the edge of the bed to read just one or two chapters for a couple of minutes, then coming back half an hour later to read another few. I was genuinely sorry that the book ended. I didn’t even particularly care who was sending the postcards, although the book does use the solving of that little mystery as a way of bringing the narrative to a close.
And the bookgroup ladies? Not a single grizzle about the length, and they enjoyed it too.
My rating: 9/10
Read because: my own selection for CAE bookgroup