Title: Portrait of a Thief
Author: Grace D. Li
Publisher: 12th April 2022 by Hachette Australia
Pages: 369 pages
How I Read It: ARC book
Genre: suspense, contemporary, art history
My Rating: 4.5 cups
This was how things began: Boston on the cusp of fall, the Sackler Museum robbed of 23 pieces of priceless Chinese art. Even in this back room, dust catching the slant of golden, late-afternoon light, Will could hear the sirens. They sounded like a promise.
Will Chen, a Chinese American art history student at Harvard, has spent most of his life learning about the West – its art, its culture, all that it has taken and called its own. He believes art belongs with its creators, so when a Chinese corporation offers him a (highly illegal) chance to reclaim five priceless sculptures, it’s surprisingly easy to say yes.
Will’s crew, fellow students chosen out of his boundless optimism for their skills and loyalty, aren’t exactly experienced criminals. Irene is a public policy major at Duke who can talk her way out of anything; Daniel is pre-med with steady hands and dreams of being a surgeon. Lily is an engineering student who races cars in her spare time; and Will is relying on Alex, an MIT dropout turned software engineer, to hack her way in and out of each museum they must rob.
Each student has their own complicated relationship with China and the identities they’ve cultivated as Chinese Americans, but one thing soon becomes certain: they won’t say no.
Because if they succeed? They earn an unfathomable ten million each, and a chance to make history. If they fail, they lose everything . . . and the West wins again.
When you have multiple quotes highlighted and you are only at page 30, well, I think that is testament to good writing. Portrait of a Thief is a book that includes great writing covering some major themes with Grace having done an amazing job on each of them. This debut novel presents an unlikely mix of heists and friendships, exploration of colonialism through art and setting up discussions on Chinese-American identity.
I went into this novel intrigued by the above themes, unsure what to expect. Many readers are not happy with perhaps the lack of energy surrounding the heists, or had set expectations regarding the clash of cultures. I, on the other hand having no set ideas, was open minded and just loved what Grace offered.
‘All of Beijing was reflected in the blaze of her eyes. “I want you to take back what the West stole.”
The heists drew inspiration from classic old movies or even the modern day offerings of Ocean’s Eleven or Fast and Furious and parallels were sure to be drawn. Whilst an entertaining aspect, for me, it was not the main draw card and I just enjoyed the logistics of setting up such an endeavour.
‘Who could determine what counted as theft when museums and countries and civilizations saw the spoils of conquest as rightfully earned?’
What did draw me in fully was the history surrounding museums acquiring and keeping objects that rightfully don't belong to them. Matters are complicated with an argument surrounding how morally and unethically items were obtained. Fascinating to consider: did they have a right to steal them back, returning them to their country of origin?
‘China and its art, its history, would always be a story of greatness. It would always be a story of loss.’
The five main characters themselves presented a selection of young Chinese America college students and covered a range of dilemmas. The strongest of course concerned how it felt to be a part of two cultures - to which did you belong? Delving deeper and understanding the heavy weight of family and cultural expectations not only affected the past but could also possibly be allowed to affect the future?
‘How could he explain how it felt to know, with a terrible and unflinching certainty, that you were not enough for your dreams? There was so much he wanted, so much that would always be out of reach.’
Then there is the writing - I found Grace’s prose to be eloquent and on point especially given there are some heavy topics under the microscope. I could go on about certain passages that totally gave me pause for reflection, however, where I think Grace was truly successful was aligning the characters struggles with the history of Asian art and hoping it would all fall into place. Superb.
‘… he thought of the Old Summer Palace burning, of all the ways history was retold, made easier and softer and less true. So much had been taken that museums would not even acknowledge. Tonight they would take something back.’
I found Portrait of a Thief to be an honest and unique story that holds much appeal. Aside from the heist aspect, the consideration of the lasting effects of colonialisation, museum ethics and the plight of immigrant populations was vividly and successfully brought to light.
This review is based on a complimentary copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own. The quoted material may have changed in the final release.