Written by Chris Womersley — Based on the true story of the theft of Pablo Picasso’s Weeping Woman from the National Gallery in Victoria, Australia in 1986, Cairo opens with main character Tom fleeing from an ordinary small town for a new life in Melbourne. He takes up residence in a run-down block of apartments where he meets Max Cheever.
The enigmatic Max frees Tom from his aspiration to go to university, and draws him into his circle of dropouts and dreamers. Through the haze of parties and politics, Tom glimpses a darker side to their bohemian lives, but falls in love with Max’s wife Sally. Then he’s asked to join them in the greatest art heist of the 20th century. Among art dealers, thieves and forgers, Tom trusts only in Max, but of all this summer’s lessons the hardest will be telling what is real from what is fake.
Chris Womersley has an innate ability to reinvent his fictional style, and Cairo is very different from his previous books, Bereft and The Low Road. Like Ruth Rendell, who regularly observes the psychological impulses of her characters in confined living conditions, so Cairo is a similar study of basic human impulses. Naive, and with a small town upbringing, Tom easily falls under the influence of Max and his cohorts, with their intellectualism and desire to thwart the conventions of society. Max manipulates Tom perfectly, slowly drawing him further into his inner circle.
Tom becomes increasingly bewitched by the attentions of Max’s wife Sally, with whom he forms a clandestine relationship in a series of stolen afternoons, but one can’t help feeling that it is their attachment to Max that binds them, and stealthily dictates their relationship. Such is the strength of this ménage à trois, that the other players are left in the shade, and don’t leave a lasting impression. With Max’s audacious plan to steal the painting and replace it with a fake, he will rely on the particular skills of others, but outside of their inclusion in the heist itself, the secondary characters have little impact. At one point these disparate individuals are decried as mad, unstable and junkies, and this is pretty much reflects the less probing characterisation of these individuals.
However, Cairo is interesting in its study of human psychology as this group, naturally afforded with wit, intelligence and education, are so resolute in their desire not to conform to society. For Tom, who has made the move to the big city to attend college and embark on life as a writer, this unhealthy influence causes his steadfast plans to fall by the wayside. The heist itself is completely masterminded by Max, and it’s not entirely clear whether this is purely a financial plan, or a rebellious act. Seeing as some of the characters do have drug dependencies, or merely want to live without having to resort to earning a living, it seems likely the planned robbery is essentially a response to human greed instead of a barometer of their heightened social sensibilities.
Having been so singularly impressed with both Bereft and The Low Road, I must concede I was slightly disappointed with Cairo. Although it is cut through with a good evocation of 1980s Australia and has some sharp moments of wit, this book doesn’t work on all levels. The characterisation of the wide-eyed and easily influenced Tom, the beguiling Max and his wife Sally, is the real strength of the book. But the other players take on a lesser role and make less impact. The premise of the art heist is a little too simply defined in its execution, which leads to a plot that lacks impetus. Compared to Womersley’s previous books, Cairo doesn’t quite hit the spot.
CFL Rating: 3 Stars