The plot of The Whites of Gold is brief and undramatic; the characters fully rounded, rather ordinary; and the locations, near Exmoor in Somerset and Battersea and Chelsea in London, hardly exciting. Yet, all the way through, there lurks a second set of meanings: tensions, allusions to complications; suspensions, secrets half revealed.
The central character, Edwin Carpenter, is gay - though he takes some years to realise it and the whole modern gay scene is barely touched on. What is more, the book and its characters have a universal appeal.
Edwin's father is hard, seemingly unfeeling and cold towards his son; his mother withdrawn, introverted, distant. At 16, he decides to sneak away from home and somehow get to London, leaving the house in the middle of the night, with one suitcase and some savings. Luck gets him a hitch-hike to just outside Taunton where, next morning, the same driver takes him to Battersea. After a short time with the driver and the man he shares his house with, Edwin moves to Chelsea, working first in a cafe, then in an office.
The whole story is dominated by Edwin's kleptomania. He steals whatever he can and whenever he can: dropped wallets, purses, anything small and easily hidden. He amasses all the stolen goods - removing the identities of the victims - in a room in his flat that only he knows about. Being nearly caught, from time to time, does not deter him. Then he meets Mark and very slowly and not quite simultaneously, the two fall in love with each other.
Edwin's parents die and he learns things about them, partly from his parents' former servant, that he had not previously understood. Eventually, as he gets close to Mark, he takes him to Exmoor to the house he had deserted as a teenager, to visit his aunt and uncle. Their beautifully judged growing love for each other leads to Edwin confessing his kleptomania, which deeply shocks Mark.
Edwin manages for some time to stop stealing but then, one day, cannot resist a wallet left on a newsagent's counter, which Mark makes him return that same evening. Although this seems to seal their relationship more firmly than ever, the reader learns, at the end of the book, that Mark left Edwin for an unexplained reason.
Samuel Lock alleges that the whole book is in fact Edwin's journal, left behind at his death; and all Lock has done is to clean it up. At one point in the journal, Edwin writes:
"Well - there they are: so many forgotten things that have been stored away. What a repository of them there seems to be in the mind. I can't write of them all; for if I did, then I would never release myself from this journal of mine, which I have noticed of late that I am now beginning to do. After all, I am not a real writer - not a professional one."
That's the only untrue thing in the whole book.
Martyn Goff is the eminence grise of the Booker Prize