Wow. I’m struck speechless. My first 5 star read of the year!
🇨🇳 Discussion of China, and the Asian-American diaspora
🖼 Art history and repatriation
✈ Heists around the world
Portrait of a Thief is a once-in-a-lifetime kind of novel. It’s the sort of story that can only be told by someone who understands what it is like to be Asian-American, what it is like to be Chinese, what it is like to see your culture stolen and taken and shown off. 5 characters, full of nuance and complexity, undertake a heist to return stolen Chinese art to China. A simple concept in theory, a deeper one in practice.
Grace D. Li constructs sentences that grasp your hand, your heart, your soul, and never let it go. Clearly, so many pieces of this story are taken from her own perspective. I’m not Asian-American, nor Chinese. Yet, I am a POC and the critiquing of Western colonialism hit me hard. For so many people, countless individuals, this story will ring true to its very core.
“Who could determine what counted as theft when museums and countries and civilizations saw the spoils of conquest as rightfully earned?”
I have never quite delved into the truth that is this: much of the art in the West has been stolen, and what does that mean for those from who it has been stolen? However, Grace D. Li handles that topic with so much grace (pun unintended) and thoughtful monologues. Every character has to grapple with discovering their own identity and meaning in this world of immigration and diaspora. Although, one of the characters really annoyed me (looking at you Irene).
As much as I enjoyed the heists themselves…they didn’t quite land for me. I read a lot of fantasy, so I was okay with suspending belief. However, you have to suspend a lot of belief to fully immerse yourself into this narrative where five college students break into highly guarded museums. I think that the heist itself is unbalanced, unmoored, easily breakable. It only serves to support the self-reflective character arcs and the discussions of morals in the art world. If you go into this book expecting a heist worthy of Six of Crows, you will be gravely disappointed. If, however, you read this with the full intention of processing the effects of Western colonialism, I promise that you will be well-pleased.
I know that this review is vague, but I think that this is a story best experienced for oneself. It doesn’t have the strongest narrative, but that can be overlooked in light of its powerful meditation on deeper issues. This recently came out, so you can order it straightaway and add it to Goodreads and Storygraph!