A Fraction of the Whole by Steve Toltz is the third book from the Booker long list that I’ve read this year. The other two, Child 44 and A Case of Exploding Mangoes, were enjoyable but ultimately forgettable. A Fraction of the Whole, however, has bucked the trend by being both enjoyable and unforgettable.
The book is a sort of family epic about Jasper Dean and his father Martin. It has a child in a coma, a criminal syndicate, a deadly fire, an insane girlfriend, a political campaign, a financial scandal, a home behind a labyrinth, an escape to Thailand, a perilous boat ride back to Australia, a mysterious face in a painting, and more. Whew!
Jasper is the main narrator, and he caught my interest immediately by revealing that he’s in prison and that the authorities will never find his father’s body. How could I not be hooked? Jasper then tells the story of his life, interspersing it with his father’s remembrances of his own childhood and a section of his father’s autobiography.
The story is filled with twists and turns, and to his credit, Toltz does not cheat as a storyteller. The surprises are revealed naturally, and although some twists were unexpected, I could always look back and see the clues that were planted along the way. It’s wonderful plotting.
And the characters are equally wonderful. I wouldn’t call them likable, but I did like reading about them. Martin is misanthropic and overthinks everything. For example, here he is on heroism:
And now everyone returning from an armed conflict is called a hero … In the old days you had to commit specific acts of valor during war; now you just need to turn up. These days when a war is on, heroism seems to mean “attendance.”
I could fill this review with nothing but Martin’s thoughts and observations. They’re hilarious and often weirdly true. (“In traditional fairy tales, the wicked witch was ugly; in the modern ones, she has high cheekbones and silicone implants! People are not mysterious because they never shut up!”)
Because of his father’s strong personality, Jasper has a bigger struggle than most of us to figure out who he is and how he should relate to his father and to the world. Should he cut himself off from his father? Give in and just be his father? It’s pretty much a universal struggle, but told in such a clever way and about characters in such extreme circumstances that it rarely feels cliched. (Maybe a little toward the end, but he earned it by then.)
I had a lot of fun with this book. It reads like light fiction but actually contains something to ponder underneath the levity. I’ll be eagerly looking forward to Toltz’s next book.