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Thursday, August 5, 2010

In Progress: 'Mr. Toppit'

Contrasts in fiction can be a powerful technique to convey ideas. Although I've read only about a third of  Mr. Toppit, a debut novel by Charles Elton coming out next month (Other Press, September 2010), contrasts abound. And they're making the reading experience richer.

Luke Hayman's father, Arthur, turned him into Luke Hayseed, the young protagonist of his beloved children's novels. Luke Hayseed isn't Luke Hayman, although of course people don't quite believe him. It's even worse for his sister. She has the Hayseed legacy but is not in the books, and this contrast is a heavy burden for her.
There also is the contrast between the Hayman family and Laurie Clow, an American who happens to be on the scene when Arthur is struck in the street and lays there dying. The contrast between the main narrative, from Luke's perspective, and a section about Laurie's drab life, is so apparent that I'm going to be looking for comparisons as well.
Elton's writing style has a flexibility to it that enhances these contrasts, throwing them into sharper focus. He also does a lovely job of the portions of Arthur's books, which are gleaming examples of British children's literature.
One of the highlights of the novel so far is that Elton does not use this technique with a heavy hand. It's not until the family returns to its Dorset cottage that I had the "aha!" moment. In Arthur's books, the forest is dark; it's where the mysterious Mr. Toppit lives. In real life, it's the woods where Luke and his sister, Rachel, find sunshine and love to play. Their house is dark, set against a hill and not a refuge.
I'm definitely looking forward to reading more tonight.

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