Steve Toltz – A Fraction of the Whole (2008)
Steve Toltz’s debut is a remarkable achievement for a first novel, set primarily in Australia but also taking in Paris and Thailand as well. An in-depth study of one family across three generations, A Fraction of the Whole manages to be both funny and tragic and is filled with some extraordinary events.
The novel focuses on the Dean family and begins from the perspective of Jasper who is serving time in prison for an unspecified crime. With time to reflect on the past, Jasper shares the story of his father, Martin, an uncertain pendulum between philosophical ingenuity and mental instability, who becomes the most hated man in Australia. In contrast there are also tales of Martin’s younger brother Terry who, despite being one of the most notorious criminals in Australia’s history, is also one of the republic’s most beloved sons. Toltz’s epic novel traces the origins of Martin and Terry, the former spending four years of his early life in a coma and once awake feeling maladjusted with the world, a sensation that never really dissipates throughout his life. Terry, on the other hand, is the more popular younger brother that looks out for Martin at school. Destined for success in sports, Terry’s life is transformed forever when a confrontation with two boys bullying Martin leaves Terry with a wound to his leg that ruins his chances of taking up sport at a professional level. Terry switches to crime and remains at the forefront of notoriety in the media while Martin is always in his younger brother’s shadow.
That is but a mere backdrop to A Fraction of the Whole which has many stories to tell, including the account of Jasper’s birth and why he has never known his mother. Jasper, Martin and Terry are the focal points of the novel with Toltz projecting complicated and often tragic relationships between them. Martin is constantly striving to find his place in life, gifted in unique ideas that he eventually shares with the world but often finds them backfiring. With Terry’s crime spree seeing him plastered all over the Australian newspapers he is constantly in the limelight ahead of Martin and it causes great resentment. However, the main relationship in A Fraction of the Whole is devoted to Martin and Jasper, with the latter remaining loyal to his father but finding his ideas and methods disturbing. Martin wishes to share his experiences with Jasper and teach him about the many complexities of life and the lessons he has learned along the way.
At the core of the novel is the complexity of family life that the majority of us will be fully aware of. Jasper’s relationship with his father is often bitter but from his prison cell at the novel’s outset he feels compelled to share the story of his father, Martin, and of his uncle, Terry, having reached a level of acceptance about the past. Everything Jasper sees has a profound effect on his life but how he comes to be in prison I cannot divulge for it will ruin the entire novel. For all its humour A Fraction of the Whole delivers some chilling moments in the latter stages, while the up and down relationship between Martin and Jasper will undoubtedly moisten the eyes of some readers and bring lumps to the throats of others. The novel is an emotional and exhausting journey but one well worth taking.
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