January 9, 2012


By John Lanchester
~7000 words

Roger Yount, a foreign-currency trader in London, awaits his Christmas 2007 bonus, which must be a million pounds or greater if he is to avoid bankruptcy. Meanwhile, his wife Arabella prepares a nasty surprise.

The perspective of this third-person narrative is divided. For most of the story it cleaves to Roger, showing us his outsized expectations and subsequent disappointment when they are not met. An additional scene, told from the wife's perspective, prepares the reader for the shock Roger will receive when he returns home on Christmas Eve to find her and the nanny gone, leaving him to care for his two children alone.

The strength of the story lies in the characterization of Roger and his wife, who present a case-study in pathological greed. If you want to understand the mentality that drove the financial world to the brink of apocalypse in 2008, read this story. Arabella owns a BMW M3 "for the shops," while the children are shuttled around by their full-time nanny (there's also a part-time one) in a Mercedes S400. The couple's £2.5-million home in South London cost £650,000 to remodel, while their country home in Gloucestershire (a former parsonage) was a bargain at a cool million. Nonetheless, "the whole holidays-in-England thing" is beginning to feel a bit dowdy, and Roger dreams of a million-quid summer place in Ibiza. The couple's breathtaking lack of self-reflection amid such opulence is expertly depicted, from Roger's rationalization of his desire for a hefty bonus—"He wanted a million pounds because he had never earned it before and he felt it was his due and a proof of his masculine worth"—to Arabella's insistence that "there were thoughtlessly rich people who could afford everything, but she didn't see herself as one of them." Against this backdrop, the couple's spiteful, superficial relationship seems almost natural.

Despite the story's fine characterization, its dual perspective is problematic. It comes across as unbalanced (only one short scene is told from the wife's point of view), and, from a dramatic standpoint, it spoils the ending. Wouldn't the impact be greater if the reader were to experience, along with Roger (perhaps after a bit of foreshadowing), the shock of arriving home to find Arabella gone? If the wife's perspective offered something that couldn't be captured through indirect means, it might be justified to veer into her thoughts for a page or two. But because she is essentially a trophy wife who recapitulates her husband's narcissism, it would make more sense for the narrative structure to recognize that by sticking to his perspective.

Lanchester's prose is a bit choppy at times including an especially infelicitous first sentence: "The proprietor of 51 Pepys Road, in South London, Roger Yount, sat at his desk at his bank, Pinker Lloyd, doing sums." Five commas in twenty-two words? Surely some of these details could be postponed so as not to break the flow so glaringly. Additionally, it is confusing to refer to the protagonist's home address in a sentence in which he's sitting at work. Something as simple as "Roger Yount sat in his office doing sums" would get the job done much more elegantly.

A final, more minor criticism: the title is inadequate for such a strong piece of fiction, which in the end succeeds on excellent characterization and a satisfying story arc.



  1. I agree that the perspective was choppy. The switch to Arabella threw me off-balance for a bit. I actually enjoyed this story, but only after I began to read it as a kind of mordant satire. It's too over-the-top to take it straight.

    1. Interesting observation, thank you. I didn't read it as a satire, perhaps because I'd just seen the documentary Inside Job, which makes the mentality portrayed seem all too real. But I think it could go either way.