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Book Review: A Fraction of the Whole by Steve Toltz

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I had heard both positive and negative reviews of A Fraction of the Whole prior to reading it. The negative seemed to be concerned mainly with the length of the book, claiming that it was overwritten. The positive reviews raved about the writing, the characterization and the structure of the novel. I thought I had better hurry up and read it, before my thoughts on this novel were hampered by everyone else’s opinion.

At 711 pages long, there is no question that A Fraction of the Whole is a lengthy read. I personally enjoy reading long books so this wasn’t an issue for me, but it is easy to understand how a book of this magnitude may appear daunting to some. As for the critics who complain about it being overwritten: I won’t lie – it did feel as though the book had to drag the reader forward in certain places, and the characters grew tiresome from time to time. But on the whole, I found myself roaring through A Fraction of the Whole, often looking up and thinking, ‘I read how many pages just then? But I swear, it feels like I’ve barely finished two!’

As far as writing, characterization and structure goes, A Fraction of the Whole is flawless. The characters are so vivid, it feels as though you are actually having a conversation with some totally insane, yet utterly likable people. A book of this length runs the risk of becoming dull and losing the attention of its readers after a period of time; however A Fraction of the Whole solves this problem by putting forward different perspectives throughout the novel, primarily those of the eccentric Martin Dean and his equally wacky son, Jasper. Structurally, this novel is separated into seven parts, each detailing an important event, or series of interlinking events, in the life of Martin and/or Jasper Dean. Although not chronological, this structure holds the novel together well, with each part being unlike the part which came before it, thereby holding the reader’s attention.

One problem I had with A Fraction of the Whole before reading it was that I could not find a plot description of the novel anywhere. Even the synopsis on the back of the book provided little information, and most reviews said the plot of the book was of less importance than the characters. I didn’t understand how a book could appear to be so apparently – well – plot-less, but after completing it, I understand. The overarching plot of A Fraction of the Whole revolves around the Dean family, specifically, Martin, Terry and Jasper Dean, and all of the turbulent shenanigans they manage to get themselves into over a number of decades (becoming some of the most wanted men in Australia and jetting off to Paris and Thailand sporadically are just a few of them). It would spoil the story to give away any major plot points, and in any case, there are so many that it would take pages to do so.

The numerous plot twists within A Fraction of the Whole were one of the strongest aspects of the book. Readers were constantly kept guessing, and were continuously surprised with the outcome of events throughout the novel. Additionally, the character of Martin Dean (a philosopher of sorts) often expressed ludicrous ideas and theories, which readers instantly laughed at, before realising that the ideas Martin was vocalizing had entirely logical bases, it is just the psyche of society that encourages us to see them as extreme and ridiculous.

Overall, I enjoyed spending time in the quirky world of the Dean men. A Fraction of the Whole, while a little too outlandish at times, and a little too dull at others, was a terrific read, hugely funny in a very Australian way, with characters that the reader is genuinely sad to say goodbye to. I hope Steve Toltz delivers another novel as entertaining as this one soon.

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