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[315] Theft: A Love Story – Peter Carey

” Yes: she had a dodgy painting, or one with a murky past. Yes: she invented a history with a bullshit catalogue. Yes: it’s even worse than this. Well: my complete abject fucking apologies to all the cardinals concerned, but the rich collectors could look after themselves. . . . Marlene Leibovitz had manufactured a catalogue, a title too as you’ll soon learn. She had turned a worthless orphan canvas into something that anyone would pay a million bucks for. ” [Ch. 34]

Theft is a (farcical) drama. It’s a send-up of the art world, redolent with satire about dealers, auction houses, collectors, art writers and forgers. The book is an art heist wrapped around some kind of a fraternal saga, in which Butcher Boone, a formerly successful Australian painter who has been divorced and bankrupted by his ex-wife, is saddled with his beloved but “damaged” brother Hugh. Recently released from jail after trying to steal back his own paintings, which were declared “marital assets” during the divorce. Boone is reduced to care-taking a remote estate for his largest collector.

There is nothing sure or contain it would seem no matter how you shave your skull or boast about your position in AUSTRALIAN ART. One minute you are a NATIONAL TREASURE with a house in Ryde and then you are a has-been buying Dulux with your brother’s DISABILITY PENSION. [Ch. 3]

When Butcher rescues a chic young woman from her submerged car during a flood, the chance meeting embroils the brothers in an international crime investigation that eventually comprises of forgery, vast sums of money, and a murder. Marlene Leibovitz, who has the power to authenticate the works of a 20th-century master (her mate father-in-law who has been inveigled by his wife), has arrived to document a painting that belongs to Butcher’s next door neighbor. The whole scheme to defraud is thus narrated in alternating by the brothers. Ironically, often taken as a simpleton, Hugh’s commentary is often more astute and realistic than that of Butcher, who can be clueless about the Leibovitz art fraud. Maybe he is too smitten with Marlene?

But why would I not turn away from her, now, as we passed this scratched-up metal door from under which wafted the inexplicable odours of cumin and cinnamon? I did not wish to turn away. So I really believed that a self-confessed liar and cheat really loved my paintings. [Ch. 45]

Overall, despite Carey’s mastery of language, to the extent that the novel is intended to portray and dissect human relationships, it fails. The intention as a black comic sendup also doesn’t pull through. The isolated humor does make me beam, but the book is a slog from start to finish.

272 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]