What I did to them was terrible, but you have to understand the context. This was London, 2016.Theft, by Luke Brown
Bohemia is history. Paul has awoken to the fact that he will always be better known for reviewing haircuts than for his literary journalism. He is about to be kicked out of his cheap flat in east London and his sister has gone missing after an argument about what to do with the house where they grew up. Now that their mother is dead this is the last link they have to the declining town on the north-west coast where they grew up.
Enter Emily Nardini, a cult author, who – after granting Paul a rare interview – received him into her surprisingly grand home. Paul is immediately intrigued by Emily and her fictions, by her vexingly famous and successful partner Andrew (too old for her by half) and later by Andrew’s daughter Sophie, a journalist whose sexed-up vision of the revolution has gone viral. Increasingly obsessed, relationships under strain, Paul travels up and down, north and south, torn between the town he thought he had escaped and the city that threatens to chew him up.
With heart, bite and humour, Luke Brown leads the reader beyond easy partisanship and into the much trickier terrain. Straddling the fissures within a man and his country, riven by envy, wealth, ownership, entitlement and loss. Theft is an exhilarating howl of a novel.
I’ve really been trying not to add to my To Be Read pile this year, but this novel sounded like just the book for me after a year of psychological thrillers. I honed in on the promise of a setting on the north-west coast, a reclusive author and black comedy. All three of these were indeed features of the novel, but they were maybe not the most important parts.
This novel certainly captures the zeitgeist – perfect for anyone who is finding themselves outshined by media-savvy twenty-somethings, and bogged down by the politics and social niceties of everyday life. It’s a fresh, quirky and cynical take on a tortured romance with plenty of internal doubt chucked in for good measure.
I felt that the characterisation in this novel was really a game of two halves. Paul was delivered to the reader as a padded-out, believable character – the type of person that I felt I knew well. Hapless, lacking direction and stuck in a role where he was very much undervalued and unappreciated, I felt like I really wanted to give Paul a kick up the bum and tell him to get his life sorted out. I completely understood his motivations and felt for his sense of just not quite fitting in.
Emily, however, was a bit more of a slippery fish, and it took me a while to get to grips with where she fitted in and what she was going to bring to the novel. I got quite confused with the relationships between Emily, Andrew and Sophie; whilst I’m aware that this was intentional, I found it a bit too disorientating and prevented me from enjoying the narrative as much I wanted to.
Maybe it was me, maybe it was the delivery, but I didn’t find this novel to have as much humour as billed. It was certainly sold to be as a black comedy, but I found the pace of the novel perhaps too slow and it’s narrative too convoluted to really find it humorous in any sense. I wasn’t expecting it to be laugh-out-loud funny, but I think that I felt for Paul too much to find humour in his situation. There’s a deadpan tone, and there’s irony and sarcasm, but I’m not sure that these added up to comedy, black or otherwise.
There’s a lot of merit in the author’s use of Paul as an unreliable narrator. He doesn’t even know whether he can trust his own interpretation at times. The narration is deadpan and blunt, and I enjoyed the way that Paul inserts himself into people’s lives whether they want it or not; he appears to be aware of social expectations, lacks any really wrongful motivation and yet does it anyway.
Overall, this was a good read, but was rather more literary than I was expecting from the blurb. Luke Brown is clearly a talented author and I think that the novel’s billing was more an issue here than any authorial aspect.
It’s perhaps a case of my expectations being set up for one thing and then being delivered another, I think. If I’d read the book without it being labelled as humorous, I would possibly have enjoyed it much more as literary fiction.
Thank you to NetGalley UK, Luke Brown and Saga Egmont Audio for this ARC in return for my honest review.