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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction



Peter Carey

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To purchase Theft

Title: Theft
Author: Peter Carey
Genre: Novel
Written: 2006
Length: 269 pages
Availability: Theft - US
Theft - UK
Theft - Canada
Theft - India
Haut vol - France
Liebe: Eine Diebesgeschichte - Deutschland
Furto. Una storia d'amore - Italia
Robo: una historia de amor - España
  • A Love Story

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Our Assessment:

B+ : lively and sharp, but wrestles with too many questions and too many demons

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Christian Science Monitor . 23/5/2006 Yvonne Zipp
The Economist A 3/6/2006 .
Entertainment Weekly . 5/5/2006 Jennifer Reese
Financial Times . 2/6/2006 Angel Gurria-Quintana
The Guardian A+ 27/5/2006 Patrick Ness
London Rev. of Books . 8/6/2006 James Wood
The LA Times . 21/5/2006 Jonathan Kirsch
The NY Sun . 10/5/2006 Adam Kirsch
The NY Times Book Rev. . 21/5/2006 Paul Gray
The New Yorker . 29/5/2006 John Updike
The Observer . 28/5/2006 Peter Conrad
Salon . 10/5/2006 Laura Miller
San Francisco Chronicle . 14/5/2006 Christine Thomas
The Spectator . 3/6/2006 Sebastian Smee
Sunday Times A 28/5/2006 Tom Deveson
Sydney Morning Herald . 10/4/2006 Andrew Reimer
The Telegraph A 28/5/2006 Ali Smith
The Telegraph . 18/6/2006 Siddhartha Deb
The Times . 20/5/2006 Sophie Ratcliffe
TLS . 26/5/2006 Ruth Scurr
The Washington Post . 7/5/2006 Ron Charles

  Review Consensus:

  Almost all very enthusiastic

  From the Reviews:
  • "The strength of Theft lies in its narrative voice and in Carey's delight in his subject. The two-time Booker winner is clearly enjoying himself -- especially during Hugh's chapters, and when Butcher is holding forth on the creation of art and the business of art, which as far, as he is concerned, are mutually exclusive." - Yvonne Zipp, Christian Science Monitor

  • "Written with terrific verbal energy and a snide, lashing sense of humour, Theft is a marvellous caper, a wicked little love story and a fine mockery of an industry that probably deserves it." - The Economist

  • "Carey is clearly having a blast with his material -- part art caper, part noir love story -- but he never quite brings the colorful Theft into focus." - Jennifer Reese, Entertainment Weekly

  • "Carey’s novel is entertaining, intriguing even, but lacking the urgency its plot lays claim to, its characters are mostly unable to elicit any empathy." - Angel Gurria-Quintana, Financial Times

  • "Carey has produced a humane, gloriously Australian book of grand passion, bad breath and high mischief. It is a rudely brilliant, infuriatingly beautiful, belligerently profane work of art." - Patrick Ness, The Guardian

  • "One of the great familiar pleasures of his new novel is the way the language recklessly mixes different registers into a vivid democracy, now high and now low, but always interestingly rich" - James Wood, London Review of Books

  • "The caper at the heart of Carey's tale is utterly absorbing, and the novel itself is richly ornamented with the tradecraft both of artist and art forger." - Jonathan Kirsch, The Los Angeles Times

  • "As always, Mr. Carey has valuable things to say about the dilemmas and temptations of the provincial artist. It is too bad that, in Theft, he has chosen such an awkward way of saying them." - Adam Kirsch, The New York Sun

  • "Theft soon lapses into the equivalent of a slaughterhouse exposé told from the viewpoint of one of its bovine victims. The complicated Leibovitz subplot, which eventually becomes the main plot and culminates in a murder, is engaging enough, but seems more suited to a seasoned writer of thrillers -- Michael Crichton comes to mind -- who wouldn't bother to scumble the hard, factual surface of the narrative with irrelevancies like atmosphere and characterization." - Paul Gray, The New York Times Book Review

  • "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. Its colorful means keep us at one remove from the central action, which, in retrospect, is perfidious and shocking." - John Updike, The New Yorker

  • "Butcher proves the more problematic narrator. His voice, for all his baroque anger, is flatter and more self-serving. Peter Carey's real-life ex-wife and ex-editor Alison Summers has been complaining in the Australian and American press that this novel is an act of revenge against her, that Carey has portrayed her as the scheming and money-obsessed Plaintiff, source of all his hero's woes. If that is the case, he could easily argue that he has let himself off no more lightly." - Peter Conrad, The Observer

  • "Theft is unsettling and erratic, yet eventually develops a straightforward tale of the intrigue of art and love. Whether examining society, the global art trade or just relationships between brothers and between men and women, Carey seems to argue that our desire to cheat, self-destruct and even kill for love and power remains charged." - Christine Thomas, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "Carey’s take on the provincial condition is acute. It is heartfelt and highly sensitive to local (Australian) nuance. Getting close to ‘the centre of it all’ after a lifetime at the furthest remove brings on a double-edged awareness that may sprout, suggests Carey, into obsessive, compromised, even criminal behaviour. (...) This is one of Carey’s better books. Far-fetched it may be, but sentence for sentence there are few writers alive who feel more real." - Sebastian Smee, The Spectator

  • "Carey sets many challenges, expecting us to pick up scatological Australian idioms, hidden quotations from Bob Dylan, references to Clement Greenberg and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska. He has earned the right to do so. There is a flow of comic incident as the story withholds what it shows and winds around itself under the author’s blissful control. Readers can gratefully share both his high seriousness and his exhilaration." - Tom Deveson, Sunday Times

  • "All in all, Carey's new show contains much that is lively, engaging and teasingly self-referential. The best exhibit, however, seems to have very little to do with the slippery world where Butcher and Marlene try to pull the wool over the eyes of sundry experts and know-alls. This is Hugh, otherwise Slow Bones, Butcher's younger brother, a shambling, meat-loving, farting nutter, a clog at his brother's heels, who commands the wisdom and clear-sightedness of the simple-minded. (...) In a wonderfully idiosyncratic diction, mingling the argot of rural Australia with urban slang, throbbing with all manner of echoes" - Andrew Reimer, Sydney Morning Herald

  • "A critique of both the art business and the business of love, this is a funny, gorgeous steal of a book. (...) Carey loves to goad acceptable style, knock it off its perch. As a writer he is in love not just with the place where 'fakery' meets 'reality' but with the Molotov mix of so-called high and low art; here he courts everything from Rembrandt to Pollock, obsessed with what doesn't get to be 'art' and why." - Ali Smith, The Telegraph

  • "The caper that follows is superbly rendered for the most part, propelled by the clashing voices of the Boone brothers. (...) But if Michael's blustering tone commands the reader's attention, Hugh's voice enthralls. (...) It is all done brilliantly, except for the awkward suspense plot driving the questions forward. The theft of the Leibovitz painting is somehow the least interesting aspect of the story, and neither is Marlene entirely successful as a character." - Siddhartha Deb, The Telegraph

  • "While the voices of the Boone brothers leap off the page with their originality, there is something a little unremitting about the two-handed narrative. It certainly leaves Marlene out in the cold. (...) Theft still seems to sacrifice the odd character for the sake of a narrative line." - Sophie Ratcliffe, The Times

  • "This is an angry book. (...) As a love story, Theft is remarkably disabused. (...) His new novel is rough-hewn, full of abrupt one-liners, blunt images and block-capital obscenities." - Ruth Scurr, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Butcher has a raw, comic voice, but the thrilling narrative drive that propelled Carey's previous work gets mired here. Even when the story does move along -- to Japan, then New York -- we experience much of it as though we're standing too close to an impressionist canvas: It's vibrant, it's colorful, but what the hell is going on ? All this is intentional, of course; Carey wants to challenge the logic of our perceptions, and he's certainly clever enough to do so. (...) Between these two fraternal perspectives, one skewed by desire, the other by a brain disorder, Carey frames a story that shifts before our eyes -- maddeningly complex, hypnotically brilliant, entirely original." - Ron Charles, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Theft is narrated, in not quite alternating chapters, by the brothers Boone. Michael Boone -- also called Butcher Bones -- was once a star painter, but his divorce ruined him. He spent time in jail "for attempting to retrieve my own best work which had been declared Marital Assets" (which seems, like much in the novel, quite unlikely ...), and when he's once again free, in 1980, he has pretty much hit rock bottom. His new beginnings aren't very promising, either, as he heads to an Australian backwater to live as an unpaid caretaker at the property of one of his collectors.
       Among Michael's millstones is his brother Hugh, a developmentally challenged man with a strong independent streak. The story is mainly Michael's, and Michael tells most of it, but Hugh's accounts do provide a bit of tonic and perspective. Unfortunately, of course, Hugh is 'special' and so Carey gets to indulge in all sorts of linguistic playfulness in Hugh's accounts ("Look at that Poke, he is poking her. But I could take a JOKE and get a POKE fast slow anyway you like you might be surprised."). One would have thought, that after so many books which include similarly 'creative' voices Carey would have had his fill (as many readers surely have), but no, he keeps 'em coming. Hugh's accounts do add a bit of insight, and occasionally are effective, but too much of these parts of the novel feel like showy (and distracting) padding.
       Theft is subtitled: A Love Story, and a woman does come into the picture. Scarred by his experiences with the Plaintiff (as Michael refers to his ex-wife -- "the Plaintiff" or "alimony whore"), Michael is a very bitter divorcé -- but when Marlene shows up, he's soon smitten. A flawed and manipulative woman -- and still married, to boot -- she quickly has him wrapped around her finger. Michael does later occasionally come to his senses and realise just how bad she is -- but he finds it hard to resist her charms.
       Marlene's first appearance in the boondocks is unlikely enough, but the circumstances turn out to be almost entirely unbelievable -- a set-up that would be laughable in any noirish thriller. And in many ways Theft aspires to that genre: it's an art-world thriller, and Marlene its femme fatale. Very fatale. (And, yes, there's theft, fraud, and even murder -- along with much deception.) But self-destructive and self-obsessed Michael, with his artist's temperament, doesn't really live in this world anyway, and that makes the fairly ridiculous plot acceptable. (Hugh, too, of course lives in a world quite of his own, so it works from that angle too.)
       And even if it is a ridiculous set-up, the caper-plot is fun. Marlene, it turns out, is married to the son of a famous painter, Jacques Leibovitz. Leibovitz had his strong period (the valuable early pieces) and his weak period -- and then there's that cache of paintings that was spirited off when he died ..... The estate has the power to authenticate the paintings, but that business isn't as straightforward as one might imagine -- family politics, greed, and all sorts of funny business (back-dating, touching up, etc.) muddy the waters. But there's an incredible amount of money at stake.
       What brought Marlene to the outback is the fact that Michael's neighbour happens to own a Leibovitz. Or owned one: it gets stolen (and Michael is one of the obvious suspects).
       Marlene also professes to want to help resurrect Michael's career, and even manages to get him a show in Japan. Is it just a cover to get the stolen Leibovitz out of the country ? And why does a single collector buy out Michael's entire show ? A buyer who happens to own a Leibovitz .....
       Marlene and Michael's next stop is the centre of the art world, New York, and things get even more complicated when her husband, Olivier, shows up -- with Hugh in tow.
       Carey has some decent fun with the art world, and especially the making of reputations and collections, and above all the valuing of paintings (with the question of authenticity a major one he focusses on). The precision -- about paints, and the art of forgery and authentification -- stands in somewhat odd contrast to some of the unlikely plot-jumps, but it is interesting detail. The story is never really very believable (though some of the precise detail about painting suggests Carey really, really wants it to be), but it is a fun romp.
       It is a romp, too, more than a neatly conceived art-thriller. Like his protagonist, Carey is simply too restless to let a story unfold at its own pace. He can do the fine detail, but he also likes to slash and leap and shout (hence also presumably the need for a voice like Hugh's, a babbling release Carey apparently can't live (or at least write) without.)
       There's also no getting around it that Michael's life mirrors Carey's. Carey's former wife has made a great public fuss about being the "alimony whore" of the novel (though this figure hardly figures in the novel, except as the subject of a few rants), but there are other similarities to Carey's own life that are more obvious. Michael and Carey were both born in the same town in 1943, and Carey apparently also lived in Bellingen, the backwater Michael's adventures begin in. It's hard to forget that Carey recently visited Japan (his previous book was Wrong About Japan), or that he lives in New York. And because the framing story of Theft is so ridiculous, an obvious fantasy, -- and because there's such an emphasis on the contrast between the Boones' provincial background and the rarefied air of the Japanese and New York art world -- one is almost inevitably led to wonder whether Carey isn't actually writing about his own (apparently semi-miserable) experiences trying to be an artist in the big city (i.e. New York).
       Michael is fairly bitter -- both because of his divorce and his artistic career -- and a deluded romantic. He should know better, but he goes considerably too far with Marlene, rhapsodizing:

She was my thief, my lover, my mystery, a lovely series of revelations which I prayed would never end.
       Eventually, of course, there's one revelation too many and Michael finally comes to his senses. But even that isn't entirely believable, since he hasn't shown much sense previously, and it would hardly have been surprising if he had accepted what she did (like he had accepted everything else) with a briefly explosive protest, a shrug, and then indifference. (For someone who was screwed over so royally by his first wife, Michael's involvement with the so obviously (even he realises it !) flawed and manipulative Marlene is never entirely plausible, but then plausibility comes and goes in this novel like everything else.)
       Theft is an entertaining and often fun read, but it's also a frustrating book, the author trying to do too much in it. It's hit and miss (and lots of splatter), and while much is wonderful, it -- is not wholly a success. Like Michael, Carey simply seems to be wrestling with too many questions (about art, fame, money, provincialism, love, etc.) and too many demons.

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Theft: Reviews: Peter Carey: Other books by Peter Carey under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Australian literature at the complete review

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About the Author:

       Australian author Peter Carey was born in 1943. He has won the Booker Prize, the Miles Franklin Award, and the Commonwealth Prize.

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© 2006-2012 the complete review

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