As we approach the end of #anzlitmonth 2014 I decided it was time to revisit an author I discovered during the 2012 event. I rated Chris Womersley’s Bereft so highly, I nominated it for the Not The Booker Prize. While I enjoyed his recent release, Cairo, just as much, it’s not as literary. To borrow a term from Graham Greene, it is “an entertainment”.
Cairo is not in Egypt. It is a famous apartment block in Fitzroy, Melbourne, which once upon a time was a bit of a dump, a place inhabited by drug-addicted bohemians and the novel’s protagonist, 17 year old Tom. He has just left home to live in his dead aunt’s flat. Young, naive, and itching to experience the delights of city life, Tom is soon befriended by a to-him-glamorous couple who widen his circle of friends (to include criminals and heroine addicts) and gradually suck him into their scheme to steal Picasso’s Weeping Woman from the National Gallery of Victoria.
At which point fiction meets fact because that painting was stolen in 1986, only to be returned intact 17 days later. The theft remains an unsolved mystery and Womersley has capitalised on that historical gap to flesh out the story. There is much to be enjoyed here, particularly about art and its intrinsic value. Tom is a budding author and he’s writing his story with hindsight. We know, therefore, that he’s not dragged down into the gutter by his new acquaintances; that he is older and wiser at the end of his bildungsroman. This makes it possible to enjoy the ride without too much anxiety. Not that the story is lacking moments of menace. There are a couple of dangerous villains and there is a murder. Also an enjoyable farce when Tom’s family make a sudden reappearance. And, for a story based on well-known facts, a totally unexpected ending.
An entertainment, indeed. Womersley has duly been added to my completist reading list.
This post is part of Australia and New Zealand Literature Month hosted by Kim at Reading Matters.