Magazine article The Spectator

A Choice of First Novels

Magazine article The Spectator

A Choice of First Novels

Article excerpt

A Fraction of the Whole, by Steve Toltz, was one of two debut novels on the Booker shortlist -- and is, one could argue, a more distinguished offering than the other debutant, which won. A rambling and hilarious tale about perpetual failure, it takes the form of an immense anecdote from a father, Martin Dean, to his son, Jasper. Martin has lived his life in the shadow of his brother, Terry, Australia's most notorious (and oddly popular) criminal. Terry began life as a sports star, but soon diverted his energies into less innocent pursuits, eventually becoming a modern-day Ned Kelly.

Martin, meanwhile, cannot avoid doing the wrong thing, in spite of his best intentions. Whether he is setting up a 'suggestions box' in his town (which quickly becomes an outlet for anonymous, scornful notes towards the Dean family, before being blown up), or trying to woo the girl of his dreams (who, of course, prefers Terry), Martin endures a life of effort followed by calamity. Toltz is a skilful ironist with exquisite timing, and although the novel is, in its 700-plus pages, occasionally garrulous to excess, A Fraction of the Whole is a penetratingly intelligent human comedy by a talented new writer.

Laura Beatty's novel, Pollard, is set in the enclosed -- and rarely described -- world of the homeless, and features a protagonist who resides in a similarly enclosed world of nature. Anne is an odd child, ungainly and vacant, given to staring from her window. Her family ridicules her until one day, while in her teens, she runs off to live in the nearby woods. Gradually Anne adapts to her new surroundings, building a shelter and learning to live off the land; in her hut she assembles a collection of discarded tat, which touchingly apes the kind of decorative comforts she believes a home ought to have. She encounters some kindness, but this is not a heart-warming tale of bucolic existence: in the background the town planners threaten the sanctity of the woods, while Anne is caught between the underlying sense of having been horrifically treated and the inability to articulate this properly to anyone, even herself.

The experience of Britain's most impoverished people is still hopelessly under-represented in fiction, partly because a life of deprivation is rarely a solid grounding for a literary career, which limits the degree to which it can be written about from the inside. Pollard is therefore especially welcome, not just as a well-crafted novel but also as a balanced and interesting account of an area of Britain which generally exists beyond literature's walls. …

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