Portrait of a Thief by Grace D. Li – Review
By Sandra Callard
This new book by American Chinese author, Grace D. Li, covers the subject of how various countries in the past have taken/stolen for themselves items of Chinese culture which they have subsequently shown in their own museums as their own property. Five students who are all the children of Chinese immigrants to America, plan to take back some of these cultural treasures and return them to China. The students are all brilliant in their given studies, and will use their skills to plunder the museums from different countries. This sounds remarkably naive, but as the story progresses it becomes steadily more fascinating as the skills of the students begin to produce results.
Individual chapters highlight the events from the different perspectives of each of the students, who, of course, have their own personalities, and their own likes and dislikes. This novel way of dividing chapters is very effective and I rather liked it.
American literature is not normally my forte, but I was irrevocably drawn into the story as it became increasingly fascinating. The depiction of American college life amongst the most gifted of students studying at the best of America’s universities, such as Harvard and Dukes, is done particularly well. Apart from the complicated, but engrossing, plan slowly coming to fruition, the picture of America which emerges – particularly of New York – is clear and concise, and to a Brit like myself who has only been to America once, I could almost feel I had visited again.
The five students each have an individual and particularly strong talent and the author’s description of these is sharp and clear as they plan their heists, with each taking the part that they excel in. The pressure mounts and you can feel their agitation and apprehension as the story oscillates from one situation to the other.
The individual personalities of the students are clear and stark as the author shows in detail their thoughts, which vary from doubt and fear to ecstasy and joy. Their individual feelings sometimes jar with each other and raises the tension as to the outcome of their schemes.
The book is exciting and beautifully written, and follows a theme that is very rarely discussed or used in a novel. The important question regarding the taking of one country’s treasures to be treated as the property of another, is a long standing and continually discussed issue. The book does not come down on either side but simply states what is happening, and is an unusual and interesting backdrop for a really good novel.
The characterisation is strong with the emotions of the characters startlingly clear. The personal problems they have felt are heightened along the way, as they become more enmeshed with each other. This book is certainly a fiendishly clever novel that is almost impossible to put down as the tension mounts, and, first novel or not, Ms D. Li has done a cracking job.
‘Portrait of a Thief’ by Grace D. Li is published by Coronet, £16.99 hardback