A thirty-something London journalist with working class roots questions his life choices as he faces bleak financial and career prospects. When he meets an older, wealthier, and more successful public intellectual, he takes out his frustrations by trying to seduce the man's girlfriend as well as his daughter.
... 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 ... 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 ... His more self-deprecating meditations or troublesome predicaments elicit waves of sympathy ... at the heart of this bittersweet novel is a tender, perfectly realized human drama.
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 ... 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 is profoundly concerned with the relationship between a person’s provenance and their place in the world ... Brown’s portrayal of this provincial milieu is refreshingly nuanced ... Paul’s motives are enigmatically opaque. His pursuit of Emily seems to be driven not so much by carnal lust as by animus against her partner and all that he represents—a kind of sexualised class warfare ... 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.