Diaspora, History, Heists, and Ennui
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 plans to steal them back.
A senior at Harvard, Will 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 premed 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.
Because 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 but yet another thwarted attempt to take back what colonialism has stolen.
Who doesn’t like a heist story? I love them, so when I had the chance to read and review Grace D. Li’s debut novel, I jumped at the chance. Five amateur thieves thrown together by a wealthy benefactor, on a mission to retrieve stolen Chinese antiques. This had a lot of promise, and I’m happy to report that it lived up to my expectations. I very much enjoyed this.
Li’s character work throughout Portrait of a Thief is really interesting. The story is told from the perspective of the five characters mentioned in the synopsis. Each of them is a member of the Chinese-American diaspora. They are juggling familial and cultural expectations, early-20s ennui and insecurity, and more. I thought it was interesting that each character is at one point described as impatiently waiting for change. As the story looks at both America and China, I wonder if the characters’ attraction to the latter might be because of the rapid rate of change and perceived opportunities for “making it” there, juxtaposed with their experiences in the US as visibly “other”, and the ways in which that can come with heavy or inescapable expectations.
Change, swift and inevitable. The country of so much of her childhood, of her father’s stories, was not the same one she was in now. And yet she studied Chinese politics and Will studied Chinese art, both of them reaching for the country their parents had left behind.
This is specifically difficult for the characters born in the US, who feel like their connection to either country is somewhat tenuous, or in some way incomplete. Throughout the novel, Li sprinkles in slightly different perspectives on China and how it looms large in each of the protagonists’ lives and imaginations.
“We’re children of the diaspora,” Will said. He had grown up in the US, knew that no matter how much he wanted it to be, China would never be home to him. “All we’ve ever known is loss.”
There were a few times, early on, when I couldn’t help but raise an eyebrow at the fact that these were the people picked to conduct an audacious, multi-national heist. Li plays rather nicely with this, when the characters try to come up with a workable plan. (When they report after watching Ocean’s Eleven, I couldn’t help but chuckle.) It’s tricky to write about this in any great detail without spoiling the final act of the novel, but all I’ll say is: Li pulls it all off very well, and there were plenty of surprises along the way. The final third-or-so of the novel didn’t unfold how I’d expected, and was all the better for it. The characters are all highly-competent in their respective specialisms, but they are not flawlessly so, and there are some very interesting obstacles thrown into the mix — some of which are overcome, some of which prove insurmountable. Sort of.
All of this is to say, I very much enjoyed Portrait of a Thief. I read it pretty quickly, despite doing so over an unusually busy work period. I eagerly picked it up whenever I had a break or could justify a chapter or two between other tasks.
I’m really looking forward to reading whatever Li comes up with next. Definitely recommended.