“What I did to them was terrible, but you have to understand the context.” So begins English author Luke Brown’s second novel, “Theft,” a caustically funny, scalpel-sharp satire about a young man trying to get ahead, and a foothold, in a rapidly changing London and a recently divided Britain. Compounding his sense of displacement is the agonizing realization that the woman of his dreams may never be his. But what kind of reprehensible and possibly unforgivable act has he committed?
He is Paul, a “would-be escapee” from the north of England. His life in London — “this ugly safari of a city” — is both exciting and challenging. He shares a cheap flat with his friend Mary. He combines working in a bookshop with writing for a magazine, a little-read publication which pays him “beer money” to evaluate books and hairstyles.
But disaster strikes. Gentrification forces him to find new accommodation farther afield. His editors scrap his books column and tell him to review “legal highs” instead. Then there are his personal problems: He is still raw from his breakup with Monica, and he is in disagreement with his sister Amy over what to do with the house they inherited from their mother.
Lifting Paul’s spirits in sporadic doses is Emily, a reclusive novelist who gave him a rare interview and then invited him into her world. Paul becomes smitten with her and deeply jealous of her live-in lover, the older, wiser and incredibly successful public intellectual Andrew. Eventually, Paul manages to whisk Emily away to his hometown on the Lancashire coast, which she uses as a writer’s retreat. But by this point she is engaged and Paul is in an on-off relationship with Andrew’s daughter, the delightfully obnoxious Sophie.
As emotions run high and confusion takes hold, one clear-cut question takes shape: Can Paul get what he truly wants before it is too late?
“Theft” is for the most part plotless but it is by no means directionless. Paul’s misadventures, romantic entanglements and attempts at stability are more than enough to charm the reader and support the novel. It might feel episodic in places, too quick to jump from one scene to another of Paul at work, at play or in therapy, but it hardly matters when those scenes are so well crafted and highly memorable.
Brown succeeds on so many levels. His cast is well-drawn and their hopes and desires are keenly felt. Paul’s acerbic commentary provokes snorts of laughter. (“The photos of these older men and younger women together looked like they belonged in plastic evidence bags, documents of the continuing crimes against women.”) His more self-deprecating meditations or troublesome predicaments elicit waves of sympathy.
Brown covers a lot of bases — property markets, sexual politics, youthful hedonism and the war of attrition that is Brexit — but at the heart of this bittersweet novel is a tender, perfectly realized human drama.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the New Republic. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
By: Luke Brown.
Publisher: And Other Stories, 320 pages, $17.95.