Portrait of a thief
In 1860, invading British and French forces burned down the Old Summer Palace in Beijing and looted its treasures. Scattered across the western world, many have yet to return home.
First American author Grace D. Li achieves a fictionalized repatriation in her detective novel With a Conscience, which mixes post-colonialist principles with heists.
Much of the fun of genre fiction comes from how it uses its archetypes. In the heist genre, it’s who makes up the crew: the mastermind, the crook, the hacker, the driver, the insider and so on.
Li’s thieves fall neatly into those archetypes, but with a twist: They’re college students in their twenties, the American children of Chinese immigrants. No one has ever committed a crime – or at least been arrested for it.
When Will Chen, 21, an art history student at Harvard University, witnesses a daring theft of Chinese art from a Boston museum, one of the thieves leaves him a note.
This leads him to an enigmatic Chinese company and the offer of his life: 50 million US dollars (70.3 million Singapore dollars) to steal five sculptures looted from the Summer Palace from museums in Europe and the United States. America and return them to China.
Will enlists the help of his sister Irene, a public policy expert who has spent years honing her gift for getting the world to care for her, and their childhood friend Daniel Liang, the estranged son of a Federal Bureau of Investigation agent.
Their team is rounded out by Lily Wu, Irene’s daredevil roommate who races cars at night, and Will’s ex-girlfriend Alex Huang, who left Massachusetts Institute of Technology for a job in Silicon Valley to help keep his family’s restaurant afloat.
They are financed by a mysterious billionaire, one of the rich young people from the Chinese elite fu er dai.
Everything Will’s team knows about burglaries comes from historical research or movies like Ocean’s Eleven (2001) and the Fast & Furious franchise (2001-present).
That they succeed is unlikely – but also, no one will see them coming. And fiction may not be stranger than reality. After all, Li based his burglaries on an actual series of thefts of Chinese art from European museums.
Li’s prose is exceptionally lyrical, considering the genre. She writes with a painterly eye, with charcoal movement and cadmium-yellow flowers, and imbues beauty with “the slow, complicated question of dissecting a museum”.
But she’s also prone to repetition to make her point, whether it’s Will’s idealism, Alex’s impostor syndrome, or Lily’s constant urge to run away. . It slows down what might otherwise be a well-delivered story.
His characters are caught between America and China, one foot in one or the other culture while not entirely belonging to either.
Li is careful not to draw a clear binary between East and West – the team is under no illusions that they will receive Chinese protection if caught, and Irene observes that China too can “take and take and take”.
However, the novel does not delve into the issue of Chinese imperialism, which leaves it unbalanced in its ideals.
But as the painful debate over whether museums should repatriate looted objects continues to rage in reality, here, at least, is some fictional satisfaction.
If you like this, read: The Gilded Wolves by Roshani Chokshi (Wednesday Books, 2018, $23.99, Buy here, borrow here). In this fantastical heist set in 1889 Paris, Métis hotelier Séverin Montagnet-Alarie assembles a team of thieves from dispossessed backgrounds to steal an ancient artifact of magic from a powerful house.