Five Chinese American students are contacted by a secret Chinese organisation. The proposal is this: they will steal five Zodiac heads residing in five different museums across Europe and America, which were themselves stolen from China two hundred years earlier. If they succeed, they will earn fifty million dollars. If they fail, their lives as they know it are over. Despite harbouring varying degrees of reservation, Will, Lily, Irene, Daniel and Alex accept.
Grace D. Li’s Portrait of a Thief has a great premise – it’s no wonder the book has been bought for development as a Netflix series. There’s a continent-hopping story, weighty themes around diasporic identities and the lingering harm of imperialism, action sequences involving heists and speedboats; not to mention the complicating factor that one of the student’s dads is an art theft detective who works for the FBI. It all sounds tremendously promising. So why then, is it such a dull read?
For one thing, our crew have a surprisingly smooth ride. All are either attending prestigious colleges or working for successful tech companies, so its not as if they’re hard up for money in the first place. That they manage to pull off robberies at some of the globe’s most renowned museums using little more than knowledge gleaned from watching heist movies seems a little ridiculous – they store their plans on a Google Doc, for heaven’s sake! Even on those rare occasions when they do run into trouble, it’s never long before a twist of fate or dubious decision-making on the part of a kindly third party gets them out of it again. It’s hard to root for these kids when everything appears to come so easily to them.
For another, the level of repetition in Li’s writing is somewhat maddening. She overuses the descriptive phrase ‘all … and …’ (a garage is ‘all concrete and dark colours’; an airport is ‘all fluorescent lights and faraway sounds’) so often it starts to seem like a running joke, or the basis of a drinking game. Almost every new scene has the quality of the light described in unnecessarily exacting detail. Then the characters have the unfortunate tendency to keep reminiscing over times we’ve just finished reading about only a few pages earlier, giving the most frustrating passages of the book the feeling of an inescapable time loop. There’s a certain cinematic or televisual sheen to Li’s prose that undoubtedly helped Portrait of a Thief catch Netflix’s attention (these reminiscences are like recaps you might see at the beginning of an episode), but it makes the reading experience monotonous and hollow.
There are embers of interest scattered sparingly throughout Li’s debut – Will’s relationship with his art theft detective father had the potential to deepen into something significant; as does the budding love triangle between Irene, Alex and Daniel – yet nothing ever quite catches fire. So ultimately, Portrait of a Thief stands as little more than a work of wasted potential, all underbaked ideas and overused phrases…
Portrait of a Thief is published by Coronet on 14 April 2022