Reviewed by Ian Lipke
The term ‘portrait’ is a term often used when talking about art. It can be a painting, a photograph, an ink drawing, a sculpture — or even a description in words or in a film. Portrait of a Thief is a lyrical novel inspired by the true story of Chinese art vanishing from Western museums. It is about diaspora, the colonization of art, and the complexity of the Chinese American identity.
The book takes the view that history is told by the conquerors. Across the Western world, museums display the spoils of war, of conquest, of colonialism: priceless pieces of art looted from other countries, kept even now.
“Will Chen is a senior at Harvard. He fits comfortably in his carefully curated roles: a perfect student, an art history major and sometimes artist, the eldest son who has always been his parents’ American Dream. But when a mysterious Chinese benefactor reaches out with an impossible—and illegal—job offer, Will finds himself something else as well: the leader of a heist to steal back five priceless Chinese sculptures, looted from Beijing centuries ago.
His crew is every heist archetype one can imagine—or at least, the closest he can get. A con artist: Irene Chen, a public policy major at Duke who can talk her way out of anything. A thief: Daniel Liang, a pre-med student with steady hands just as capable of lockpicking as suturing. A getaway driver: Lily Wu, an engineering major who races cars in her free time. A hacker: Alex Huang, an MIT dropout turned Silicon Valley software engineer. Each member of his crew has their own complicated relationship with China and the identity they’ve cultivated as Chinese Americans, but when Will asks, none of them can turn him down.
If they succeed? They earn fifty million dollars—and a chance to make history. But if they fail, it will mean not just the loss of everything they’ve dreamed for themselves, yet another thwarted attempt to take back what colonialism has stolen.”
While there exists no doubt that Grace Li has written an almost perfect cultural heist – a book that is in equal parts beautiful, thoughtful, and thrilling, it is an examination of Chinese American identity, as well as a necessary critique of the lingering effects of colonialism – it does not follow that the book is without fault. I have considerable trouble with the title. Who is the thief of the title? A Western Museum that guards the booty, acquired under dubious circumstances? Or one of the five thieves that set out to relieve the museum of its prize.
Is Will Chen the thief of the title? Or Will’s sister Irene? Daniel? Or Lily? Or Alex? Too many potential thieves fit the title. Does it make more sense to think of ‘thief’ in an abstract way? What is there about thieves that sets them apart? We’re on safer ground when we think this way. Grace Li has supplied five individuals who, in sum, could be said to cover the spectrum of what a thief might be. In this review let us consider just one of these individuals.
Will Chen has a very Chinese way of looking at the world. He resents the western notion that what is theirs by conquest is sufficient to make it theirs. As a student at Harvard, he knows he is a high achiever. Yet he cannot help making comparisons with his equally ‘brainy’ sister, Irene. In all the years they had spent growing up together he had never seen Irene do anything less than perfectly. Sometimes it was hard to look at his sister, to know that, if she wanted to, she could be everything he was and more (153). Yet he does not envy her, for envy is not in his makeup.
Will is of a philosopher’s bent. He is extremely intelligent and understands what Lily is referring to when she says, “I’m not like you or Irene. I don’t need to change the world. I just – I want to live, and to know that it’s enough” (155). For Will this becomes “To live without the weight of everything you were not – how could it ever be?” (155) – not precisely the point Lily was making but a valid interpretation of the way Will thinks.
Portrait of a Thief was written by a medical student at Stanford University. Of Chinese extraction, Grace Li is well equipped to explore characters who think differently from the conventional Western mind. Her book is not only intelligent but also asks more of its readers than similar books do. I found it fascinating.
by Grace D. Li
$32.99; 381 pp