I’m going to start this review by saying flat-out that A Fraction of the Whole is my book of the year. Already. I’m confident that nothing could come along and usurp it. I haven’t loved a book like this since Dinaw Mengestu’s Children of the Revolution. Tolz’s debut was shortlisted for the 2008 Man Booker Prize but it lost out to Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger (a worthy winner, I had thought, until I read this).
The book focuses on the tangled lives of the Dean family, primarily Terry Dean, sports hero turned robber turned murderer, his half-brother Martin Dean, a frustrated philosopher with perennial bad luck, and his son, Jasper Dean, who could spend a lifetime trying to unravel the parenting web that his father has spun tightly around him.
Tolz is a man who understands the entirety of the human condition, our strengths, our weaknesses, our shambolic failures, our victories, our failures masquerading as victories and vice versa. I wanted to underline paragraph after paragraph so I could remember the best bits and when travelling (drunk) on the train without a pen (never without a book, of course) I ended up tearing tiny corners off the pages to so I didn’t lose my favourite sections.
Even if this is the only book Steve Tolz ever writes, even if every book he writes after this is utter drivel, he will remain for me a great voice of the twenty-first century. He can do epic and moving to the point that you can practically hear violins swelling in the background and he can do witty – you can be smirking mere moments after you’ve wiped a tear. He would be an excellent speechwriter – delivering beautiful, unsettling soliloquies that make you want to slap the book down on the table and say “Yes! Exactly! That’s exactly what people are like! Right there!”
And yet despite the book’s philosophical nature, it’s full of action, and not just mundane action but ACTION in capital letters. We’re talking murderers on the loose, millionaires being made, cars being crashed through strip club walls and fugitives escaping overseas.
This book is all about lives being overshadowed, whether by grief, inflexible thinking or others who have gone before – those who blaze a bright trail unmatchable by those who follow behind. I think it’s fair to say that Tolz is much more interested in life’s losers than in stories of triumph and glory and A Fraction of the Whole is lives up to its name with its exploration of human helplessness in the face of an unknowable future.
For Tolz’s characters, especially the luckless Martin Dean, good intentions almost always produce catastrophic results. ‘There before the grace of the universe go I’ seems to be a thought that is close to the author’s heart and it is one that interests me too. I remember reading Frank Skinner’s autobiography and in it he recounts the time when, as a child, he threw a brick at a little girl’s face in a moment of petulance. The girl (his next door neighbour) mercifully came off with cuts and bruises and Skinner escaped with no more than a furious reprimand from his parents – but he seems genuinely quite harrowed by how different the story could have been. No one, he notes, wants to laugh along with the child-killer comedian who bricked a little girl to death. But Frank Skinner got lucky where Martin Dean does not although Frank Skinner had to write his own life story whereas Martin’s is done for him, skilfully, touchingly and superlatively by Steve Tolz. Do not miss out on this book – it is seven hundred pages of absolute magic.