After reading a fair number of books on art forgery and faking (and even writing one: Rembrandt Sings) I have lately turned to a novel about literary fakery. Peter Carey’s narrator is a lady rejoicing in the name(s) of Sarah Elizabeth Jane Wode-Douglass, labelling herself as a rebellious child with a brain, who, at the time of the events she retrospectively describes was the editor of a leading poetry magazine, The Modern Review. There are two, or could it be three, male characters who have roles in the story she unfolds: John Slater, author of Dewsong whose “celebrated verses were nothing so much as bowers constructed by a male in order to procure sex”; Christopher Chubb, an unsuccessful Australian poet who pulls off a literary hoax that may have cost the life of the editor he deceives, and Bob McCorkle who ought to be no more than a figment of Chubb’s imagination but, like Frankenstein’s monster, becomes reality and sets off to pursue Chubb, seeking retribution.
There seems to be one shared characteristic among dedicated art fakers. The art world has failed to appreciate the quality of their original work and, by way of sticking two fingers up at that world, they create work that could pass as, and be passed off as coming from another more famous artist and, for long enough, they manage to hoodwink the soi-disant experts who give the fakes their stamp of approval. A more daring variation is to create not only the ‘work’ but the whole back story of the supposed artistic creator. This is what Chubb does by inventing Bob McCorkle and claiming this talented yet unsung poet has died leaving his works with his sister who then brings them to Chubb’s attention. Carey very successfully (re)produces the voices of the narrator and her protagonists to create a work of genuine wit and convincing realism that shows what a gifted writer he has been for so many years.
To enjoy the book’s slow but sure unravelling of the plot, you must not be told much more than this. The events take place principally in pre-independence Malaya where Sarah believes she is on the brink of laying hands on a poetic scoop that will be the making of The Modern Review and its editor; but events (being in the hands not of fate but of the talented author) have a way of not turning out as expected. (And you will learn more Malay than you did when reading the Anthony Burgess Malayan Trilogy.) However, what gives the book its curious and intriguing ring of apparent truth is the fact that there was a ‘genuine’ hoax in Australia in 1944 concerning the work of one Ern Malley which appeared in the literary magazine Angry Penguins. Carey properly acknowledges this source as his inspiration but it is only the source from which springs a work of literary language and subtle complexity that is totally Carey. Verdict 7.5 out of 10.