I will confess from the beginning that I did not really like this book. It was the May choice for my book club, so I had to read it, and left to my own devices I may never have cracked the spine.
Now, that is not to say this is a bad book. Many of the other members of my club did like it and it had some redeeming qualities. I have enjoyed other Carey novels such as Bliss and Oscar and Lucinda, but Theft is just not up my literary alley.
It may be that I have maxed-out on fiction novels that revolve around art and the art world. In this novel, has-been artist Michael “Butcher” Boone has just been released from prison after trying to steal his own paintings from his ex-wife “the plaintiff” to whom they were awarded during the divorce. He has nowhere to go, no source of income and nowhere to live, so Michael’s arrogant and unlikeable patron, Jean-Paul lends him use of his farm in the boonies of Australia where he can tend to the fields and take care of his adult brother Hugh who is not firing on all cylinders.
Carey uses a double narrative that I did enjoy, because although Hugh is cast as the violent and unpredictable half-wit, his narration of the story is much more honest, interesting and entertaining than that of his brother.
The novel opens slowly and the actual love story does not really get rolling until after the first hundred pages. Michael meets a beautiful woman named Marlene who treks through mud and a creek to visit his neighbour, who may be in possession of a Leibovitz (fictional painter, I did google it). Marlene’s husband, Olivier, is the painter Jacques Leibovitz’s only heir and as such possesses the droit moral, or ability to authenticate a painting, thus making it extremely valuable.
Unfortunately for almost anyone who comes in contact with Marlene, she is about as scrupulous as she is honest and as Boone falls more and more in love with her, he becomes inextricably duplicitous in her schemes.
In his review in Britain’s The Guardian, Patrick Ness refers to Theft as “probably the grumpiest, rudest and stinkiest novel Carey has ever written.” He also states, “ For these reasons alone – that he frightens those who want their fiction easy and annoys those who want theirs portentous – a new Peter Carey novel is cause for joy.”
On the other hand, in his review in the New Yorker in May 2006, John Updike seemed to have a more kindred experience to mine: “Peter Carey is a superb writer, whose prose is always active, and who infuses his characters, however eccentric, with a warmth that lets them live in our minds. But “Theft” is not a superb novel; there is something displaced at its heart.”
Two brilliant reviewers, one neighbourhood mom. Brilliant novelist ? absolutely…Brilliant novel?…you be the judge.