Australian author Peter Carey, winner of the Booker Prize both in 1988 for Oscar and Lucinda and 2001 for True History of the Kelly Gang, mines the pricey world of modern art in his latest novel, Theft: A Love Story, set in Australia and New York City.
Michael Boone is a formerly famous artist. His biggest collector sets him up as caretaker of his country estate in New South Wales, hoping he'll regain some of his former brilliance. Accompanying Michael is his mentally challenged brother Hugh. Into their somewhat humdrum existence drops Marlene Leibovitz—the daughter-in-law of the famous abstract expressionist, Jacques Leibovitz. Marlene's husband has inherited the right to authenticate his deceased father's works. Marlene's larcenous side leads her to steal and alter real Leibovitz paintings, and to get Michael to produce fakes—no scheme is too over-the-top for Carey's pen.
For the past 15 years Carey has lived in New York; a friendship with an art dealer there led him to reflect on how the value of a work of art is ultimately assessed, and how quickly one style in current favor could be abandoned for another. He sprinkles dollops of tongue-in-cheek satire throughout this novel, skewering everything from dealers who capriciously decide what's in and what's out to exhibitions in department stores.
Carey's tour through the modern art scene has its touching moments, too. Michael constantly worries that Hugh is "dead, drowned, run over, [or] picked up by sick-ohs in a van," and Hugh, though short on brain power, perceptively feels his brother's pain at being out of the artistic limelight.
Readers new to Carey's prose will soon find he is a master of the metaphor, repeatedly offering gems like the one Hugh uses to describe his image appearing in a Polaroid: "like a drowned man floating to the surface of a dam." Carey's latest romp, a winning combination of character study and suspense, should appeal to readers who enjoy literary fiction delivered in a satirical and witty voice.
Deborah Donovan has a master's degree in art history.