Peter Carey: Theft

I am a serial abandoner of Peter Carey novels. I loved his first Booker Prize winner, Oscar and Lucinda, and then read his next, The Tax Inspector. Since then I have manfully begun each new book, and the occasional older one, without the diminishing returns ever permitting experience to triumph over hope. Illywhacker. The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith. Jack Maggs. True History of the Kelly Gang. All unfinished. So why did I bother with Theft: A Love Story? Because I was in a small local bookshop with limited range, and as always, I was seized by an absolute need to buy a book in a way I wouldn’t have been were the choice much wider.

At least that’s my excuse. The story anyway is of the Boone brothers: Michael, an artist and recently released convict, known as Butcher Bones; and his ‘damaged’ brother Hugh, “doughy, six foot four, filthy, dangerous-looking” with “hair [that] looked like cattle had been eating it”. They take turns narrating the novel and the plot folds back on itself as they recount all the things that led them to where they are today, together with the ongoing story of what is happening now. Each fills in and reveals things that the other omits. Butcher’s narrative is masterly: just on the borderline of out-of-control, the muscular and belligerent tone of a man who suffers from “a lack of charm when sober.” As a man whose paintings used to be in fashion five years ago, but now can’t get arrested (so to speak), he has strong views on the art world:

The market is a nervous easily panicked beast. And so it should be. After all, how can you know how much to pay when you have no bloody idea of what it’s worth? If you pay five million dollars for a Jeff Koons what do you say when you get it home? What do you think?

He is “a thieving cunning man” (“it’s no use getting old if you don’t get cunning”) who harbours great resentment against his ex wife almost as much as he does the art world for ignoring his “monster” paintings “made from light and mathematics.”

Hugh’s voice, unfortunately, is tremendously annoying although in its way a greater act of literary ventriloquism. It seems to be an extension of the semi-grammatical style of Ned Kelly in True History of the Kelly Gang, but littered with UPPER CASE for no reason I could figure out. By halfway through the book I had reached the stage where my heart sank every time I recognised Hugh’s voice opening a chapter. Eventually my heart sank so far that I had to put the book down to go and look for it; and couldn’t then bring myself to pick it up again.

So I have failed to finish my fifth successive Carey novel. I am at least consistent. At the stage where I was keener to read the words around the book than the book itself, I was interested to see Carey give thanks to, among others, his friend and fellow novelist Patrick McGrath. McGrath’s last novel was also about art: the superlative Port Mungo which, incidentally, has thanks in the acknowledgements for Peter Carey, and which I would recommend unreservedly. Otherwise, unqualified as I am to draw any conclusion about this book I didn’t finish, please complete your own thoughts in the space below.










  1. I read Theft for the book club on the Reading Matters blog. Unfortunately there wasn’t much of a discussion as others failed to read it. I found some things quite interesting. I found Butcher’s attitudes about art and the art community fairly realistic perhaps because i was once married to an artist with similar irreverential attitudes. I too was irritated by the capital letters, reminiscent of The Beans of Egypt Maine by Caroline ?? Can’t remember her last name at the moment. I found reading the book very disorienting and confusing the first time I read it. However, I began it a second time and it all went much more smoothly and I liked it so much better.

    Also I thought there was a parallel between the book Hugh loves about the thieving animals, I now forget the title, and the actual novel Theft. I later read the children’s book which is how I came to that conclusion and I liked that added parallel.

  2. Yes suki, I guessed there might be parallels between the book Hugh loves and Theft itself, which would probably enrich the reading. I should make it clear that although I didn’t finish it, I didn’t think it was a bad book, just couldn’t stick Hugh’s narrative and ultimately didn’t care to read another 150 pages to find out what happened. The art world I suppose always attracts writers, as there’s something visceral and (literally) colourful about a painter’s life which on the one hand parallels, and yet on the other is so much more appealing than, a writer’s. Glad you like Port Mungo too suki: I think everything about it is more or less perfect, and McGrath’s portrayal of an artist’s passion which leaks into other aspects of his life is wonderful. Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley Under Ground is another interesting art-world novel.

    Thanks for linking to your review jem: I didn’t realise Theft had been longlisted for the Booker last year.

  3. I have a love/hate relationship with Carey. I loved, loved, loved Oscar & Lucinda, and I very much enjoyed Jack Maggs, but I abandoned Illywhacker and True Story of the Kelly Gang — and I *never* abandon novels.

    That said, I read Theft earlier this year, and, as Suki rightly points out above, it was chosen for discussion for my online reading group, although the discussion didn’t get too far because very few people seem to have read the book. I have to say I actually enjoyed it. I thought it was one of Carey’s more light-hearted tomes, and there’s a wicked twist at the end which really made it work for me. It might sound odd, but I thought Theft was one of Carey’s more “commercial” novels.

  4. Goshdarnit, dgr, I was hoping for someone to come forward and tell us we were all wrong and Carey is an unparalleled genius! Isn’t there anyone out there who loves all, or most, of his books?

    (By the way one book where lots of upper case doesn’t pall is John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany. LIBERACE – KILLED BY WATERMELONS!)

  5. I think I’m going to have to give this a shot soon, if ony to find out what the twist is. I bought it last year, along with most longlisted Booker titles, and, like most of those titles, it’s still unread. There’s that and Oscar & Lucinda on my shelves, and that one has been gathering dust for years.

  6. I share your disappointment on Theft, John, for similar reasons. I also failed to SEE the POINT of the CAPITALS. But I did like the scathing insights into how the art world functions. I also liked Oscar and Lucinda but I’ve never been attracted by any of the others.

  7. Perhaps Carey thought the CAPITAL letters would be a good way to help suggest the viewpoint of a character whose thinking system is somewhat different? but perhaps a more skilled writer could do that without altering the letters themselves. Quite a few books seem to use funny fonts and stuff to this purpose (like Darkmans and the gothic script). Sometimes I like it, sometimes I dont.

    Stewart – there were a few really good titles on last years Booker longlist that didnt make the short. I loved both ‘The Perfect Man’ and ‘So Many Ways to Begin’.

  8. Jem, I know you’ve been working your way through Jill Dawson’s output, but have you got to Wild Boy yet? I started reading it a couple of months ago and it has three narrators whose accounts aren’t identified separately, so you have to work out for yourself who is talking in each passage. Admittedly I gave up on it as I couldn’t keep track, but I think that was more to do with my being unable to concentrate on anything at that time rather than a failing on Dawson’s part.

  9. Yes John, Wild Boy was my first Jill Dawson. I really liked it. I struggle sometimes with the ‘guess who is narrating now’ game – but I fell into it quite easily. I liked that book for its notion of taking an event from history and fictionalizing / fleshing it out.

  10. Ha, I’d forgotten about this post, shigekuni. I don’t know why I am so unable to complete Peter Carey’s novels (other than Oscar & Lucinda): I want to like them, but rarely do. I didn’t even attempt the one after Theft, His Illegal Self, but I received a copy of the handsome US edition of his latest, Parrot and Olivier in America, so I might try that one at some point (well, if it gets prize shortlisted or similar…).

  11. I’ve been reading quite a bit of His Illegal Self yesterday (Parrot… still too expensive for me) and I might well be the person you asked for earlier ( “I was hoping for someone to come forward and tell us we were all wrong and Carey is an unparalleled genius!”).

    I think very few writers can do what Carey IMO does in “THeft”

  12. I LOVED (no irony intended) Theft! It made me laugh out loud, and I recommended it to all my friends.
    Just got the new ‘The Chemistry of Tears’ and can’t wait!

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