Theft: A Love Story by Peter Carey (2006) 269 p.


I don’t know if my story is grand enough to be a tragedy, although a lot of shitty stuff did happen. It is certainly a love story but that did not begin until midway through the shitty stuff, by which time I had not only lost my eight-year-old son, but also my house and studio in Sydney where I had once been about as famous as a painter could expect in his own backyard. It was the year I should have got the Order of Australia–why not!–look at who they give them to. Instead my child was stolen from me and I was eviscerated by divorce lawyers and gaoled for attempting to retrieve my own best work which had been declared Marital Assets.

I can’t remember where, but I’ve seen another reviewer compare Peter Carey to a “bower-bird,” his books the product of a relentlessly curious mind attracted by flashy things and stitched together into an unlikely nest. Although it jumps around the world, from northern New South Wales to Sydney to Tokyo to New York, Theft: A Love Story is relatively restrained in its focus. Michael Boone – a once famous painter – has fallen from grace after a messy divorce and now ekes out a living taking care of his mentally impaired brother Hugh, living in his patron’s farmhouse in northern New South Wales. Michael is working on a painting which he hopes will propel him back into the graces of the art world when a strange woman named Marlene arrives one night, visiting his neighbour to authenticate a (fictional) Jacques Leibovitz painting. Not long after, that painting is stolen, Michael is accused, and the three characters embark upon an odyssey that will take them to Sydney, Tokyo and New York.

Carey, as always, has a beautifully evocative sense of place – although this was the first book I noticed just how deeply Australian that talent is. He can beautifully paint the muddy riverbanks of subtropical New South Wales, the dusty streets of Bacchus Marsh, the urban labyrinth of central Sydney – but his descriptions of Tokyo felt uncharacteristically flat and colourless. Even New York City – which, by the time this book was published, had been Carey’s home for twelve years – doesn’t quite leap off the page as Carey’s homeland does. Nonetheless he still has a turn of phrase, a garrulous narratorial voice, which never fails to please:

The taxis in New York are a total nightmare. I don’t know how anybody tolerates them, and I am not complaining about the eviscerated seats, the shitty shock absorbers, the suicidal left-hand turns, but rather the common faith of all those Malaysian Sikhs, Bengali Hindus, Harlem Muslims, Lebanese Christians, Coney Island Russians, Brooklyn Jews, Buddhists, Zarathustrians—who knows what?—all of them with the rock-solid conviction that if you honk your bloody horn the sea will part before you. You can say it is not my business to comment. I am a hick, born in a butcher’s shop in Bacchus Marsh, but fuck them, really. Shut the fuck up.

Theft: A Love Story falters quite a bit in the middle, but redeems itself by the end with a very clever plot development, and a final line which echoes one mentioned many times throughout, only now with an entirely different meaning. It’s not his best, but not his weakest either. Which, since it’s Carey, means it’s a really great read.