Brown is an exceptionally stylish writer. From the first page, it is clear we have the steadiest of hands on the tiller. He’s also supremely literary and, as an editor of fiction, and a contributor to the Times Literary Supplement and London Review of Books, he knows the scene he satirises. The dialogue is crisp and true-to-life, the description intuitive. Every joke lands. My problem with this novel is Paul, our unreliable – and detestable – narrator. Of course, detestability is not a problem in and of itself; ... Theft’s problem is that Paul is loathsome without ever being interesting, or inspiring empathy.
Set against the backdrop of the 2016 EU referendum, Brown’s astute and funny second novel follows Paul, a bookseller and reviewer who knows that he can’t live in his cheap east London flat for ever, and that his book column will soon be axed. After an interview with the novelist Emily Nardini, he becomes part of a Conversations with Friends-esque entanglement with Emily, her boyfriend Andrew, and Andrew’s daughter Sophie, which all makes for vibrant passages of dialogue.
Theft is profoundly concerned with the relationship between a person’s provenance and their place in the world. It begins with the death of Paul and Amy’s mother, who bequeaths them their childhood home. Paul returns to the Lancashire coast to find his former schoolfriends still frequenting the same pub, its clientele enthusiastically pro-Brexit. Brown’s portrayal of this provincial milieu is refreshingly nuanced. In a telling vignette, Amy recalls how she once missed out on a promotion after pointing out, in response to an interview question on diversity, that there were “places where white isn’t really anything like a synonym for privilege”...perhaps the most striking feature of this well-crafted novel is the highly selective access we are afforded to the narrator’s inner life. He is candid and transparent when ruminating on family and friends, but of his sexual machinations we get zilch. This makes for a convincing rendering of the compulsive, thoughtless nature of certain kinds of destructive behaviour. The register here is more black comedy than psychodrama: the narration is brisk and the dialogue pithy, with lots of satirical lampooning of the contemporary cultural landscape – wry digs about clickbait journalists, ambivalent polyamorists and right-on literati.
Readers like myself, for whom witty books about libertines formed the basis of a sentimental education, will enjoy Theft. They may even recognise themselves in it. Readers who never had much truck with the style — its charming man-child anti-heroes with their moral acrobatics and their guilt — or who believe the mode has rightly had its day, may find male desire as boring as usual. But if they give it a chance they’ll find the book funny and moving, too.
This is brilliant on divisions between people and places, tribalism and the death of debate, how almost accepted it has become to attack white men and silence their voices, and about how lonely they can be. I raced through it.
The resulting story is one of radical instability, partly because the question of Brexit has aggravated Paul’s relationship with his sister, and partly because Paul’s interactions with Emily and Sophie have strained his sense of being, of place, and of romantic security.
Brown handles all of this with poise, precision, brio and a bracing lack of sentimentality. He also pulls off the novelist’s trick of awakening our empathy for a narrator as potentially rebarbative as Paul, while making it clear that we are in the presence of a shit who yearns to be the kind of man – “a better man” – who would grant himself no form of exoneration.
The dominant feeling we are left with, then, is one of an enlargement of sympathies, and an enhanced apprehension of the various forms that personal constancy, political allegiance, thwarted ambition and silent aspirations might take. Theft might be a novel about the multiple ways in which we can be robbed of our foundations and our fidelities, but the attentive and subtle manner in which it is executed is unmistakably Brown’s own.