Theft by Luke Brown review – angst in the age of Brexit

Matthew Adams
Theft by Luke Brown review – angst in the age of Brexit. A man loses his bearings when his sister disappears in the wake of the 2016 referendum

Luke Brown is magnetised by the nature of honesty, deception and departures. His first novel, My Biggest Lie, followed the fortunes of a man whose promising life is disrupted by the loss of his job, his girlfriend and his home, and by the subsequent turbulence that those events entail. In this second book those themes return, though in this case the lineaments of deprivation, dissimulation and loss are revisited with unsettling contemporary resonance and alarming force.

Set in the wake of the Brexit vote in London, 2016, Theft tells the story of the conflicting desires and private anxieties of Paul, a mildly successful literary journalist and bookseller (and a more successful reviewer of hair salons), and his sister, Amy, with whom he has been at odds since the recent death of their mother. After a disagreement about what to do with what was once their family home, Amy has gone missing.

Alongside this narrative runs the story of Paul’s encounter with Emily Nardini, a reclusive cult author who, after agreeing to a rare interview, enraptures him with her conversation, her writing, her tales of her much older partner, Andrew, and talk of her daughter, Sophie – a young and successful journalist whose preoccupations turn upon what she sees as the twin subjects of sex and revolution.

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.

• Theft by Luke Brown is published by And Other Stories (£11.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15