Five recruits. Five museums. One chance to win everything.
Portrait of a Thief, the debut novel from debut author Grace D Li was one of the past year’s most anticipated releases; a high-concept literary thriller about art, reclamation, and the concept of home. Released in hardcover 2022, Portrait of a Thief focuses on five young adults across the Chinese-American diaspora – aspiring artist and the group’s de facto leader Will, his icily perfect sister Irene, her mechanically-minded roommate Lily, their classmate Daniel, and MIT dropout and hacker extraordinaire Alex – who are tasked by a shady conglomerate to steal back five Chinese relics from museums across the globe and return them home (think Ocean’s Eleven meets The Farewell for the clumsiest of comparisons).
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Li spends the majority of the book’s runtime balancing the novel’s ostensible heist premise with its real driving force, its exploration of relationships between the five leads and their own relationship to their Chinese and Chinese-American identities. These overlocking, overlapping relationship dynamics between our quintet are a joy to read, whether that’s the simmering romantic tension between Will and Lily, the burgeoning friendship between Daniel and Alex, or the fractious sibling relationship between Irene and Will.
Equally explored are the themes of colonialism and identity – each of the five leads has their own relationship with China and how it shapes their sense of self. Daniel’s father finds himself unwittingly investigating his son’s crimes, having moved his son to the United States in the first place to try and save his dying wife. Alex supports her first-generation immigrant parents who cling to their version of the American Dream. Each of their stories explores the disconnect that comes from belonging to multiple identities or cultures to pleasing effect.
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Li’s writing style is pleasingly crisp and evocative and the novel’s structure allows things to ramp up towards a satisfying conclusion that goes beyond what would be considered the end to your typical heist story, one that focuses on correcting longstanding problems, namely returning artefacts to their cultural homelands. The arc of the moral universe is long but bends towards justice, to paraphrase.
Complete with nifty new artwork for its paperback release (the paperback inverts the hardback’s original colour palette, making it not only pleasing to look at, but also a neat incentive to pick up both versions should the desire strike), Portrait of a Thief is an exemplary look at identity and belonging through a unique lens and through the talents of a freshly-debuted writer, someone this reviewer will be keeping a close eye on. A thrilling heist, deep resonant themes, and absorbing characters all in one book? It’s basically a steal…
Portrait of a Thief is out now from Coronet.