Although I love writing I simply have to be reading at least one book that I can pick up at any given moment. I try to read a range of books, all types of fiction, biographies and, in particular, history. Over the years I’ve read some brilliant novels, some of which have inspired me in my own writing, others whose stories I cannot shake years after reading them. Compiling a list of my favourite books has proven a tall order but I have come up with what are currently my Top Ten Novels. I’ve stuck with fiction for this list as I may produce a similar one for non-fiction books I have had the pleasure of reading in the near future. The wonderful thing about books is I never tire of trying to find new masterpieces. I love the ten featured here but I wouldn’t be disappointed if ten more great novels came along that bettered them, though I think it’s unlikely to happen to all of these titles.
Steve Toltz – A Fraction of the Whole (2008)
The first of two entries in this top ten that are both recent reads and ones wholeheartedly recommended to me by Mrs B. 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 in Martin who is always referred to as Terry’s brother rather than by his name. 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. This fractious relationship is constantly at breaking point but bridges are repaired towards the end in the book’s most emotional scene, one that had Mrs B in tears as I read the book on the train one day and she was peering over my shoulder to see how I was getting on!
A Fraction of the Whole is filled with rich and colourful characters that you’ll have a hard time getting out of your system. Martin, Terry and Jasper Dean aside, other notable characters include Caroline Potts, who grows up with Martin and Terry and is desired by both men; the troubled Astrid that Martin meets on his travels in Paris; Eddie, a Thai photographer that is always eager to help Martin with money and loves taking pictures of him; Anouk, a spirited young woman that scratches Martin’s car with a set of keys and for this act of vandalism is given a job as Martin’s housekeeper; and finally Harry West, an ageing criminal that teaches Terry some tricks of the trade and later enlists Martin to help him publish a book about his criminal life, with devastating consequences! That brief snippet should give you a taste of what to expect with Toltz’s novel. The events in the novel – a fire in Martin’s hometown, his time in Paris, an ingenious scheme to make everyone in Australia millionaires, a journey to Thailand with Jasper – are as varied as the characters that inhabit the many segments of the overall story.
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.
When Mrs B handed me A Fraction of the Whole I honestly didn’t know what to expect. The synopsis made the book sound intriguing enough but I never expected to become so absorbed with it to the extent I did. The characters and events in the book are all brilliantly realised with Martin Dean, in particular, being a welcome addition to the ever growing list of memorable but complex literary characters. Toltz’s debut is near flawless, which is not something you would often expect of a writer’s early works. Like Richard Kelly with his masterpiece, Donnie Darko, I would be surprised if Toltz manages to write a better novel than A Fraction of the Whole, but if he does achieve such a feat I’ll be pre-ordering that book well in advance!
Top Ten so far:-
10) Steve Toltz – A Fraction of the Whole
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